The apparel manufacturing industry is at a crossroads in its digital evolution. Many manufacturing sectors, including automotive and furniture, have adopted next-gen technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Conversely, apparel manufacturing has been slow to embrace change, even with the increased pressure for speed and personalization.
To keep costs low, apparel brands have historically chased low labor costs and tax havens, rather than automating and streamlining the supply chain to bring their companies into the 21st century.
So what will motivate manufacturers to incorporate new technology innovations? Primarily it’s survival as the shift in consumer buying habits demand transparency, speed, sustainability and value.
A recent survey from CGS found that consumers want to know how a product is made, including whether it’s eco-friendly, and what the cost for sustainable products would be. And with consumers in the driver’s seat, apparel brands must modernize their technology and processes.
Turning ‘data dilemma’ into data delivery
There’s an abundance of statistics available to manufacturers today, but too much data can be overwhelming rather than actionable. Apparel manufacturers need a true data-driven strategy to turn this information into predictive analytics; this will ultimately help them execute on such tasks as streamlining R&D processes and offering on-demand manufacturing.
Data-driven companies, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, leverage predictive analytics to forecast consumer habits. Amazon, for example, plans to store products in regional locations near customers, based on a predictive inventory model. If predictive analytics determine that a consumer may buy an item, Amazon will allocate the inventory near that consumer for same day pickup or delivery.
While the use of predictive analytics increases, so does the data for personalization.
Stitch Fix is one of many companies using predictive analytics, true fit technology and personalized data to create unique options for consumers. This type of data-driven analysis is expected to become the norm, accelerating apparel companies’ need to make this the core of their supply chain strategies.
Giving your supply chain a next-gen tech makeover
There are tremendous use cases for AI and other next-gen technologies within the supply chain that apparel manufactures can emulate. For example, footwear companies like Nike are testing robotics and 3-D printing for further opportunities to personalize and customize products.
For decades, the automotive industry has successfully integrated robotics and automated the supply chain, touching processes from welding to upholstering. Companies see the value of this technology for streamlining and automating the process.
Sarah Krasley, founder of cloud-based AI platform Shimmy, for one, came from the automobile engineering industry. Taking what she’d learned and tapping into IBM Watson, Krasley launched Shimmy, which uses predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, 3-D design and augmented reality to fast-track workflows, setting the stage for the next-generation of automated apparel manufacturing.
Deepening customer connections with connected platforms
The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are prime examples for igniting change. Connected devices and platforms are derived from the connected world and affect the supply chain, from the manufacturing floor to the customer experience.
Today’s smart factories encompass the digital manufacturing process, allowing for sensors to be used to further automate processes with little human intervention. On the floor, the IoT can help gather data from connected sewing machines, which can report on usage and maintenance, all while motivating the operator to continuously improve productivity.
The changing roles in the apparel workforce
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. apparel manufacturing jobs have decreased precipitously over the last 25 years, and only a small percentage of organizations have completely aligned their talent strategies with their digital roadmap. Now is the time to prepare for the next wave of change to encourage growth.
It’s not solely about factory employment. Manufacturers must think beyond traditional jobs and prepare the new roles that come with new technology. This includes engineers, business analysts and data scientists, who can collect and derive value from data, assisting with predictive analytics and robotics experts to help with automating sewing and other labor-intensive processes.
Creating a culture that supports next-gen technology careers in apparel will be led by manufacturing advocates and evangelicals. Embracing data and technology will help improve margins, without sacrificing quality or delaying processes. By eliminating the need to only look toward low-cost labor, it ushers in the next wave of apparel manufacturing careers in the U.S.
Learning the ABCs of technology can improve the bottom line
Given the rise of fast-fashion, apparel manufacturers must adapt to survive. For the U.S.-based apparel giant General Sportswear, leveraging technology to support its supply chain was “a game-changer.” The availability of real-time information allowed operators to earn more, while enabling supervisors to track and streamline production on a moment-by-moment basis.
From C-level to laborers, technology is positively changing the way business gets done. Organizations can now use data to see how to improve the process from the machine to the operator to increase productivity and profitability. They must use this data to train employees and help improve their skills.
Why change now?
The old adage, ‘give the customers what they want, when they want it and at the right value,’ has stood the test of time despite how consumer expectations have evolved. Customers want more personalization, speed and value. Adoption of technologies that can expedite this process–along with the re-skilling of the workforce–must go hand-in-hand to ensure continued growth in the full ecosystem of apparel manufacturing. From the top down, a willingness to embrace new technology and processes will be crucial to the industry’s success or failure.
Paul Magel, president of business applications and technology outsourcing division, CGS, leads the company’s flagship BlueCherry Enterprise Suite of solutions for the fashion, apparel and consumer lifestyle products industry.