Targeting the supply chain
Even with high costs, clothing manufacturers in the U.S. were forced to invest more heavily in technology over the last three years because the COVID-19 pandemic exposed issues with demand management and supply chains, said Insight.
The pandemic threw off retailers’ monthly inventory predictions, especially as lead times for shipments from Asia began taking eight months or longer compared to four to six months prior to the pandemic.
Leading up to the pandemic everything was about cost control and driving the absolute lowest cost and getting the cheapest supply chain possible. The supply chain was relatively stable and retailers could use basic tools or Excel to manage inventory. The technology, however, provided little help in optimizing how much of what item they needed.
Now most technology investments are going toward AI and data analytics to address some of these issues by boosting efficiency, which increases profitability and improves sustainability. This is because it doesn’t replace a core part of the brand’s business but still allows them to respond more quickly to customer demands and trends.
New investment in modeling around demand. Understanding when they are going to see spikes in demand, what’s happening in the market, what are the trends and what are other fashion companies seeing.
Brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, has been allocating funds for AI and data analytics to get products to customers more quickly and fulfill demand.
Another aspect of the supply chain process that has seen the most innovation is placing orders in showrooms, according to co-founder of AI mobile body scanning solution 3DLook and formerly a consultant focused on automated processes and digital innovation.
Previously, retailers would come into the showroom and fill out a physical order form, but now there are systems like NuOrder and Joor that have digitized this process and are widely used. NuOrder’s cost starts at $600 per month, its website states and Joor’s costs range from $5,000 to $20,000 per year, according to Inc.
If anyone is still doing it by hand, it is by choice. Some people are like, ‘I’ve been doing this for 30 to 40 years so I’m going to continue doing it this way.’
Apparel development innovation falls short
Another aspect of the manufacturing process that is still very manual is apparel development, which, unlike some aspects of managing the supply chain, is very expensive to automate.
Apparel development has three stages: pattern making, cutting and sewing. The industry has made great strides in automating cutting and using software to develop patterns, said Argyle Haus.
While cutting technology is available, the automated machine isn’t widely used due to its high cost, which Argyle Haus said is upwards of $500,000. The machine doesn’t completely eliminate human labor either. A worker must place the fabric in the machine, which rolls it out and cuts, and someone has to come to pick up the stack and deliver it to the sewers.
On the other hand, the sewing process is almost impossible to automate and most manufacturers still use conventional methods like hand stitching or sewing machines. The cut-and-sew process is one of the top expenses in apparel manufacturing due to its reliance on manual human labor, representing about 35% to 40% of the total cost.
It’s easy to use robotics to manufacture goods for cars or planes due to their rigid structure, but clothing, not so much. Fabric is malleable and creating clothing requires layering fabrics of different weights and stretches. To think you’re going to automate that whole thing is incredibly complex.
That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts at finding a solution. Sewbo, which launched in 2016, is a machine that chemically stiffens fabrics to allow robots to sew garments. The chemical used is polyvinyl alcohol, a polymer that is already in widespread use for textile production, according to its website.
The founder of Sewbo told Fashion Dive in an email that it is developing its technology with a team of industry partners including Saitex, which is one of the companies Levi’s uses for denim production; Bluewater Defense, a manufacturer of uniforms for the U.S. Department of Defense; and Industry Sewing and Innovation Center. However, its tools are still in development and evaluation and are not currently used in production.
Softwear Automation has found a way to automate the sewing process as well, but exclusively for T-shirts. The company created a robotic system called Sewbots Workline, which uses cameras to map the fabric while robots steer through sewing needles. In 2017, Softwear was tapped by Adidas to create 800,000 tees per day — a volume that wouldn’t be possible with manual human labor.
The fashion industry, in general, from how we concept, to how we create, to how we sell, has been a very slow sector to innovate.
But these emerging technologies show that change is afoot. There has been a lot of innovation and forward movement, and it’s picking up pace because consumers have so much power.