Fashion production processes are set to become more intelligent and interconnected in the wake of COVID-19.
As factories grapple with the health crisis, those who have automated are in better shape than those who haven’t, as digitization can maintain efficiency and consistency amid social distancing and remote work. Additionally, as companies look to bring production closer to home to avoid supply chain disruptions, automation is a means of keeping labor costs down.
“It will be in the very near future that more and more companies require automation,” said Karl Kitze, division manager KSL at DAP America, a producer of sewing machines. “Especially now with COVID-19, a lot of people became aware that a manufacturer in low wage countries like India, it’s nice, but then such a pandemic comes and then the whole flow of parts, materials, and…goods gets disrupted…So for that reason a lot of companies want to manufacture locally, but they have to automate because otherwise they’re not competitive.”
While that may be true, obstacles including the upfront investment needed could mean that change will be delayed.
“COVID…will slow down automation in the short term, and accelerate it in the long term,” said Pete Santora, chief commercial officer at Softwear Automation. “There’ll be less risk capital, there’ll be more people focused on just trying to figure out how to survive, how to get workers back, how to keep them safe. And then, once they hit some plateau, it will be this significant push to better alter the way that production is done.”
Cut and sew
Apparel has been lagging behind other sectors such as the automotive industry in adoption of automation, particularly in the final stages of production.
“Brands and retailers are afraid to change the way things have been done for a long time—and the lack of sewing capacity,” said Andy Arkin, strategic account manager at cutting systems company Zund America. “The bottlenecks aren’t in printing or cutting, they’re in sewing.”
Automatic cutting machines have been around for decades, but it has been more of a challenge to transfer complex sewing tasks to an artificial intelligence. Machines can handle stitching such as sewing button holes or a straight seam, but a human touch is still required for more intricate assembly.
Some companies are making strides in this area. Softwear Automation is creating autonomous sewing worklines that can tackle home goods, footwear and some apparel and accessories items. One of the firm’s recent developments is a robotic process that can sew in 3D, such as attaching a collar to a shirt or sleeves to the body of a T-shirt.
Other advancements include 3D knitting machines that remove the need for traditional cutting and assembly.
According to Santora, the automation developed so far has been focused on specific types of products, such as jeans or footwear, rather than being blanket innovations that can be applied to all forms of fashion, because the sewing processes are different.
Experts believe sewing is years away from being fully automated on an industrial scale, but a report from the International Labour Organization found that sewing machine operators have an 89 percent risk of eventually being displaced by automation. “The more readily and cheaply robots can sew clothes…the less readily can developing countries retain their competitive advantage resulting from lower labor costs,” says the report.
However, even with automation, there is still a need for workers to man the technology. “It’s training that’s needed, rather than being a fear of losing a job,” said Ketty Pillet, vice president of marketing at Gerber Technology.
According to Kitze, “nearly everybody” can be trained to feed a machine, whereas higher level technical skills are potentially needed for maintenance on the equipment.
The risks of relying too heavily on manual labor have come to light during the epidemic, as factories have had to adjust to maintain safety standards. The number of sewing lines in some factories has been slashed to allow for the proper distance between workers. With automated machines, employees could more easily stay separated.
End to end
Mechanical automation is one piece of the puzzle, but insiders believe that the main progress that will likely come out of COVID-19 is going to be the digitization of workflows leading up to production. This includes transferring more product design to 3D and enabling more end-to-end collaboration and tracking.
“It’s not just the production process I would think about when we think about automation,” said Vivek Ramachandran, CEO of Serai, a platform connecting fashion buyers and sellers. “I would actually think about how the industry works. If the bulk of production is automated from a mechanical perspective, I think the challenge with production is automating it from an intelligence perspective in terms of using data.”
One of the arguments for advancing automation within development is the opportunity to reduce waste. This has become increasingly important as firms aim for more sustainability and raw materials are harder to come by and costlier during the crisis. Designing in a 3D format enables companies to reduce the number of samples needed to get the fit and aesthetic right. Once a company is ready to produce a physical sample and start a production run, having software that can more accurately create markers for cutting machines saves fabric by getting cuts right the first time.
This savings is more about how software fits into the bigger picture. “It is by automating all the chain from end to end that you are able to make the savings and be profitable and efficient all along the way until the final product,” said Pillet. “If you take only the cutting or this automation path, you’re going to save a little, but not as much as you could.”
Artificial intelligence can also make equipment smarter. With connected machines, companies can track KPIs to help determine what processes are working well and what needs improvement.
One of the ways that COVID-19 has also changed cut and sew, according to Pillet, is in the maintenance of machines. Whereas pre-pandemic, factories wanted a technician on site, now they are more open to having these individuals monitor, analyze and solve problems remotely.
In addition to connected machines, collaboration between vendors will help to push automation and efficiency forward.
Santora has recently seen a shift toward different hardware companies working together, moving from “developing individual systems” to “holistic systems.” This approach includes figuring out how machines for specific tasks can work together and how to collaborate on sales and factory integration.
While companies see the case for automation, the investment cost needed upfront can be a hurdle.
“The initial investment is sometimes not cheap,” said Kitze. “And that is holding them back, even if sometimes the return on investment is pretty quick.” He noted that one company was presented with an ROI time frame of two years, which it deemed too slow.
Brands and retailers often seek out factories based on their automation capabilities. However, buyers are not typically interested in helping factories invest in this technology. Some retailers and brands have entered joint ventures with their manufacturers, but this is not the norm.
“Brands and retailers are just so used to having an arm’s length relationship, even with their strategic vendors, and that if the business model calls for it, that they could pick up and move or be flexible,” said Santora. “But that flexibility really is a function of lack of commitment.”
Experts aren’t ruling out the possibility of more financial support or shared responsibility from buyers to factories. However, the burden of investment is expected to continue to rest on manufacturers, making it unlikely that they will be able to afford to make changes in the near-term since many are currently struggling with financial stress including canceled orders.
“The dynamic is so skewed in terms of the large buyers at this point in time, that a lot of that relationship has been dictated by the brands and buyers…The only way that’s going to change is with more data, more transparency and a new set of [financial] instruments to mitigate risks,” said Ramachandran. He noted that there are financial protection options often left on the table by manufacturers, such as trade credit insurance or letters of credit.
In addition to the current challenges, it could also be difficult for companies to obtain capital at the moment. “Credit appetite in the short term is going to be hugely constrained,” Ramachandran added. “I’m not sure of many lenders or insurers who have got appetite for the industry at this point in time at any scale.”
Some countries may offer help, either through tax credits or financial assistance, but the level of governmental support will depend on factors including how reliant their economies are on apparel.
Even if companies have the financial capital to invest in automation, implementation will not happen overnight. Kitze noted that if machines have to be built made-to-order, factories may have to wait months or even more than a year for delivery to allow time for design and development.
From factory closures to shipping delays, the pandemic has highlighted the potential problems of having a supply chain spread around the globe. As a result, some companies are considering nearshoring.
“Big brands and retailers have their supply chains so well established that many still don’t see the need to change; however, the current state of the world, with import challenges and supply-chain disruptions, is putting much greater importance on U.S. manufacturing and production closer to consumers,” said Arkin. “Entrepreneurs have been the ones responding proactively to these developments by embracing new technologies and opening up successful micro-factories.”
Automating could make nearshoring more financially feasible.
Some of the U.S. manufacturing popping up is around personal protective equipment, but Santora sees the potential for these newer players to break into other products. What will also drive the possibility for nearshoring is moving beyond equipment to systems that have hardware and software working together. “The systems are more expensive, but the return in the U.S. will also be greater, and I think that’s what will enable that scale,” he said. “Just an individual piece of technology by itself won’t be enough.”