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Making Air in the Seventies

Among the dozens of numbered buildings in Nike’s manufacturing complex in Saco, Maine, building 108 became the starting point for Nike Air. The first floor housed the Air-Sole injection molding and encapsulation process. Polyurethane was poured over the bags to form the midsoles on the second floor. The uppers were then applied in a different building.

Air Manufacturing Innovation Then and Now 1

Building 108 was kept under tight security, and what went on there remains one of Nike’s best-kept secrets. That was partly because many of the Air-Sole patents were still pending. No one had access to both floors — not the facility manager, not the person in charge of footwear testing in Beaverton (though as a Navy reserve officer he did have top-secret state clearance), not anyone. 

Also in the late 1970s, Tetra Plastics of St. Louis became a part of the Air effort after a Tetra salesman visited Nike’s R&D facility in Exeter, New Hampshire, to talk about using polyurethane in shoes. In the decades to follow, Tetra pushed the envelope for polyurethane materials, blow molding and other critical manufacturing. 

Tetra Plastics created visi tubing technology…
This special flat tubing, called parison extrusion, was essential in making Air-Soles taller, cleaner and more durable. Once Nike and Tetra streamlined the process, production efficiency increased and waste decreased. In fact, it’s the only Air technology that was created and patented by Nike via Tetra Plastics.

…and developed blow molding
Blow molding is a plastic-forming process that produces hollow parts with great design flexibility.

Making Air in the Eighties

As the partnership grew ever tighter in the 1980s, Nike and Tetra realized that it was mutually beneficial for Nike to absorb the company. Tetra, after all, was essentially the only source for Nike’s Air-Soles, and there was no small amount of trepidation that a competitor might offer Tetra an astronomical amount of money to jump ship.

Here’s a closer look at how each Air unit is made

Making Air in the Nineties and Today

Nike completed its purchase of Tetra Plastics in 1991, moving Tetra’s headquarters to Beaverton and continuing to manufacture Air-Soles in the St. Louis facility. Nike renamed Tetra to In-House Manufacturing in 1998, then Air Manufacturing Innovation in 2017.

Read More: Innovation Design