With technology advancing at an unprecedented rate in recent years, the changes in the manufacturing industry have been compared to the Industrial Revolution that impacted the Western world in the 1800s.
Fashion, of course, has not been an exception; in fact, some of the most exciting innovations have come from fashion production manufacturing, which has also changed how the entire industry works as we know it.
The industry needs to evolve quickly to respond to the need of ensuring the right products at the right price, the right time, and the right customers through improved and sophisticated processes. This has required the persistent digitization of manufacturing through increasingly connected devices and platforms.
Because of the internet, hyperconnected users and their devices have driven consumer expectations. This has created a need for brands and entrepreneurs to be faster in collecting user data, sales performance, customer feedback, and identifying supply chain issues in order to improve their businesses, changing the very nature of the fashion cycle.
Many trends are shaping the future of manufacturing, but we've identified nine major factors that are having the most impact right now and are generating more components:
The rise of machine learning
A machine’s ability to learn and adopt intelligent human behavior is not new. Today, these advanced algorithms are transforming the way the manufacturing industry collects information, performs skilled labor, and predicts consumer behavior. Some even predict themes in trending patterns, silhouettes, colors, and styles and provide customer sentiment around products and runway images. Some are almost taking the place of humans to detect when it’s the right time and product for a brand’s ideal customer.
Tommy Hilfiger, for example, announced a partnership with IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology to develop an Artificial Intelligence System to determine this kind of data to optimize production, sales and also reduce cost and waste. The students at FIT will have IBM Research’s AI capabilities including computer vision to look into the company’s data like real-time fashion industry trends, customer sentiment around every Tommy Hilfiger sent back to the student designers to make informed decisions for new product development.
Another company like San Francisco-based, Stitch Fix which delivers clothing to customers with the help of online stylists, is also working with AI. They are now designing garments created by algorithms that identify trends and styles missing from the Stitch Fix inventory. These are based on combinations of consumers’ selections of favorite colors, patterns, and textiles which are picked by the AI system which then suggests a new design. Then these new designs are reviewed by a (human) design team.
As people become increasingly “impatient” shortening lead times is key to ensure delivery with optimum timing. This is why many companies have taken a step further and are the entire process “in-house” to increase speed and supply chain efficiency. Things like materials sourcing, creative and technical design, samples, production, and shipping under the same roof. And for everything to run smoothly all the teams must have a real-time flow of information to ensure everyone has access to the same data and the same version of the latest products.
This "in-house" production thinking is already being implemented by many companies, from big brands like Gucci to small manufacturers like Suuchi Ramesh.
The first decided to internalize part of its production to speed up the pace of manufacturing and meet consumer demand quicker. And the second has become famous thanks to the innovative in-house production approach which handles handling fabric sourcing, product design, manufacturing, and sales under one roof.
Suuchi Inc. currently uses 100 different machines that enable 30% to 40% of the clothing production to be automated.
"Our effort is to reduce manual intervention and eventually introduce robotic technology and automation," Ramesh said to CNN.
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Fashion on demand
Fashion on demand is a new trend to watch. New technologies like automation and data analytics are shifting consumer needs to just-in-time production. Many brands are switching to made-to-order production cycles. The result is a reduced level of overstock and less clothing that ends in landfills. Lately, we’ve noticed an increase in the importance of the small-batch production cycles.
Typically, a production cycle was a long time-consuming process requiring nearly a year of planning. New technologies, analytics are becoming a solution for the brands to quickly source and develop products, shorten production timelines and streamline distribution.
New York-based software company ShareCloth contributes to the on-demand brand by digitizing styles. They create 3D samples of garments and 3D virtual bodies of the customers enabling retailers to place orders before manufacturing the products.
Some of the big players are also stepping up. Big companies like Boohoo, Zara, Uniqlo, and Asos are embracing the model.
Large brands like Prabal Gurung require 8 to 12 weeks for their made-to-order line. So the team can dedicate their resources for the team to dedicate their resources like design, production, pattern-making, customer service.
There are positives and negatives to on-demand production from an economic point of view. On-demand production requires lower capital investment which leads to a small batch inventory and to a more sustainable production cycle. However, due to the lower quantities of garments produced the manufacturing costs are higher.
Robot Designs for the Manufacturing Floor
Illustration by Estudio Santa Rita
Robots have traditionally been ideal to perform tedious, repetitive tasks on the assembly lines in factories. However, the latest advancements have equipped robots with memory and agility making them highly programmable and collaborative. It is not about eliminating positions, but about making smarter workers, and also keeping humans safe by replacing them in dangerous situations where robots can do the job.
Of course, robots in fashion manufacturing have not come without challenges. For example, cutting fabrics with robotics has been possible for years, but sewing has been more difficult as robots are not ideal for certain textiles like pliable or elastics for example.
Some companies like SoftWear Automation have developed “Sewbots” equipped with robotic arms and vacuum grippers, that can guide a piece of cloth through a sewing machine very accurately, bringing down costs and speeding up the process.
Just two years ago robotics startup Sewbo launched a robot capable of sewing a t-shirt without any human intervention using water-soluble stiffening solutions to turn cloth into cardboard-like material.
For their part, since 2013 Nike has been manufacturing shoes under Grabit a robotics startup that uses electroadhesion to help machines manipulate objects.
As companies implement innovative technologies, digital factories are transforming clothing manufacturing. Leading manufacturing companies are digitizing their production and supply chains. They deploy the key technologies including big data analytics, end-to-end, real-time planning, autonomous systems, and workers augmentation. These technologies allow companies to produce highly-customized products and gain significant efficiency.
Factories of the future will be completely automated with self-repairing and self-servicing structures. Requiring minimal human intervention. They will allow predictive analytics and self-diagnostics. With the help of real-time processing and data analysis, fully integrated smart factories will provide a highly accurate overview of all stages of the manufacturing process.
One of the strategic methods of digitalization is the Digital Twin approach. With Digital Twins manufacturing processes can be replicated on a digital platform within a virtualized environment. Digital Twins can be used to test out new process solutions for the factories, without the expensive overhead. In the long run, that can minimize the production costs.
Rapid Data Analysis For Quick Adaptation
Image by Palantir
Thanks to the Internet and new software brands and factories can receive real-time feedback and alert companies of defects or damaged goods helping them save money and eliminate waste, helping deliver adequate products at the perfect time.
Some opt for management software like IQMS which serves in manufacturing monitoring and data collection of your production in real-time as parts are being made and applied to the shop orders.
Today as cloud computing has grown, it lets factories and companies work together from many parts of the world at the same time. This can allow them to access relevant data, facilitating quicker, more productive, and clear communication.
Legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in manufacturing are being replaced by Cloud-based systems. Those systems enable automated updating without the pitfalls of downtime and can manage whole-system solutions.
The manufacturer can keep their financial, warehouse, and client information safely in one platform. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies offer increased versatility and flexibility to adapt to fluctuations within markets. That potentially can eliminate the overhead costs of running an in-house IT department. It also allows better visibility of the entire supply chain.
In clothing manufacturing adoption of cloud-based is expected to grow more in the coming years. Offering transparency in the entire supply chain and potentially helping to reduce production costs by eliminating unnecessary spending whenever possible.
Some labels like Badgley Mischka are already collecting data as soon as the models step on the runway showing the latest designs. Thanks to a mobile application they developed for iOs the label solicits feedback from the fashion show attendees to gain more insight on how customers are reacting to an outfit. This information is transmitted to retailers that carry their lines, helping custom forecasting, replenishment of stock, and optimizing business planning.
Manufacturers are adopting new processes for managing customer relationships and improving product sales all in one place. The type of software, known as manufacturing CRM allows manufacturers to organize customer data, and close deals more quickly all in one platform. It allows manufacturing businesses to get insights into customers' needs that can be used for improving existing products and help develop new ones.
Techpacker makes it easy for factories to track product development and communicate with clients online. It allows manufacturers to receive tech packs with high-quality images, translate files to destination languages and easily track clients' tech pack changes.
3D Design, printing, and mass customization
Elsewhere, brands are exploring how 3D printing can help them produce goods on-demand and create new avenues for customization. This has become an increasing need as competitiveness lies more and more in delivering products tailored to the customer's tastes and needs in a speedy and timely manner.
There are new 3D rendering technologies like CLO which allows brands to edit designs at the moment and instantly review changes. This can help improve the quality of designs by checking silhouette and fit sooner in the development process minimizing unnecessary waste, and error in the sample before finalization.
Another one is EFI Optitex which greatly improves the expensive and lengthy process of finding an adequate fit by taking essential components of the designs like flat sketches and technical patterns which morphed to simulated 3D renderings, which allow to cut, loosen the fit, and make all necessary adjustments in real-time.
Also, 3D printing has been huge for on-demand production. From Adidas’ 3D printed shoes to apparel brand Ministry of Supply, which uses an in-store 3D printer that creates customized knitwear on the spot. In addition printing garments on-demand reduces fabric waste by about 35%.
Digital knitting is also changing the apparel industry, making great strides. It is not only showing incredible advancements in the 3D printing sector but offering another entire range of customization possibilities. For example brands like Australia-based fashion label, Shima Seiki can turn cones of yarn into a full, seamless garment in less than one hour, while Ze-Nit is creating digitally knitted urban wear allowing for functionalities and benefits to be placed where the body needs it most.
Better working conditions
Lately, an increasing amount of global fashion brands have been making agreements to work with suppliers, governments, and NGOs to ensure a fair living wage and better working conditions for workers.
The fragmented production model, pressures on prices, and lack of critical insights have allowed severe exploitation of workers. Some big companies like Nike, Levis, Esprit, Adidas, and PVH signed an open letter to the Cambodian government asking them to improve their labor standards.
The use of new internet-based technologies can have the potential to identify and track previously obscure information. They can also connect individuals and groups to organize and act using this information. Although there are laws in place to protect workers and their rights, governments routinely fail to enforce these laws. Also workers rarely fully know their rights.
The Labour Exploitation Accountability Hub is a website offering a great source of information on relevant laws, exploitation info in various country contexts, and tools that are used to fight severe labor exploitation. The Hub is an interactive platform that generates a global discussion about what accountability looks like around the world. As well as how to replicate the success in new locations.
Focus on Labor Exploitation platform offers better access to legal information. Like local laws that can be used to protect workers from abuse and exploitation.
New communication and information technologies have made access to information easier, shaping the way we communicate, engage with each other, and participate in society.
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