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Automation Technology Will be Key to US Reshoring

Made in USA” may be resurfacing in more clothing labels, but if manufacturing is to take hold here in any consequential capacity, automation technology will be what fosters the resurgence.

Companies like Lectra, a world leader in integrated technology solutions, are working to develop hi-tech processes that streamline the supply chain, increase efficiency and ultimately reduce required labor — perhaps an answer to keeping U.S. manufacturing costs manageable.

“In the apparel industry the world continues to seek the lowest cost humans,” Renato Mariani, Lectra’s VP of marketing for North America, said. “In terms of repatriating some of that [offshore outsourcing], we’re never going to be the lowest cost workers, but if you want skilled employees, you have to give them the right workplace, and automation will be key.”

According to Mariani, one of the areas gaining traction today is maximizing both cutting room efficiency and the use of fabrics to eliminate waste and reduce costs. And Lectra’s latest Optiplan V3R4 solution is helping some businesses do just that.

The company debuted the new cutting room optimization tool in November, designed to give operations a competitive edge. The tool allows cutting room supervisors to generate spread plans, markers and cut orders prior to production — all of which can be laid out in advance, minimizing the operators needed to make decisions on the floor. The tool takes production constraints like fabric costs, labor rates, table lengths and ply heights, and then identifies the most effective approach for a given number of orders, according to Lectra.

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“You can have great cutting systems and great operators, but what Optiplan does is it takes that skill set and really automates it,” Mariani said. “You are optimizing marker efficiency and saving money on that fabric and it manages all of that because it ties into to your ERP, tells you when you’re going to be low and when it is time to reorder, as opposed to hiring 50 people with 20 years of experience each.”

Three-dimensional innovations are also hot on the market today, according to Mariani. Lectra is focused on 3D Computer-aided design (CAD) technologies that outline patterns sized to spec and can make digital “samples,” curbing the cost of traditional sampling and cutting down the back and forth of the approval process.

Automation across technologies is allowing companies to be more responsive to the consumer, who increasingly wants everything now.

“A lot of retailers are struggling with excess inventory at the end of a season. If you can improve that overall process, shorten the supply chain interval and meet the consumer’s demands and needs, you’re going be more competitive, and you’re going to be able to get the product that consumers want quicker,” Mariano said.

“That’s what were seeing in this market; there’s not a full repatriation of Made in America, but there’s a nearshoring, a move to Mexico, which is really an extension of the U.S. Sewing skills aren’t available in the U.S., but they are in Mexico,” he said. “You do it because you’re able to be more responsive, get a high quality product to the consumer when they need it, and you don’t need to commit to it a year in advance.”

To SoftWear Automation Inc., a developer of robotic sewing technologies, the availability of human sewing skills may soon not matter much.

In December, the company secured $3 million in funding to support its effort to make the U.S. garment manufacturing industry price competitive again by using technology that can manipulate fabrics through sewing machines for fully automated garment production.

“SoftWear’s technologies will eliminate sweatshops and give the American apparel industry a significant competitive advantage,” K.P. Reddy, SoftWear’s CEO and CTW partner, said in a statement late last year. “Also, in the same way the 3D printer is changing traditional manufacturing and prototyping, our devices will revolutionize the apparel industry by allowing designers to instantly fabricate their fashion line and create clothing beyond the capabilities and precision of human hands.”

The technology is expected to make U.S. manufacturing competitive with overseas production because of the reduced need for skilled labor, lowered lead times and less excess inventory as brands could make smaller runs more often. It could also increase possibilities for customization — another thing today’s consumer seeks.