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The Emergence of the Micro Factory Will Mean Macro Change for Manufacturing

Before long, companies will have established complete factories in a space as small as 600-square feet. And they’ll be able to deliver on demands for customization at scale.

These micro factories have started popping up, and their growth is expected to continue, considering the big offer from such a small supply chain.

A fully functioning apparel micro-factory was on display at Sourcing at Magic in Las Vegas, where visitors witnessed a concept come right off of a smartphone and emerge as a complete garment in little no time.

On the show floor, EFI Optitex 2D and 3D solutions allowed for the integration of a design from someone’s phone, and produced a pattern for garment sewing, cut the pieces, T-shirts were assembled, design data was converted to printing data, and the tees were printed using eco-friendly, water based inks.

“The cool thing about this whole micro factory…is an integrated workflow that makes it all work together,” said John Cote, North American sales manager for Zund America, which had its cutting system set up in the micro factory. “It’s scalable and flexible to produce almost any garment you want to produce.”

The printed garment industry has been among the last industries associated with printing to adopt on-demand production, so that has been an area of focus for Zund.

“On demand works for print because it reduces the time to market and the inventory cost, it allows for customization and it improves cash flow because it’s paid up front,” Cote said. “With on demand, you can come up with an idea and have it in the market within a week.”

That’s the kind of end goal Industry 4.0 is expected to bring. That is, if the industry can let the evolution happen at the pace it should.

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“Industry 4.0 is supposed to be the true revolution for the manufacturing industry. It’s the combination of automation, with digitalization, with robotics, working in an entirely different way,” Alex Vega, president of Eton Systems, which had its unit production system set up as part of the micro factory, said during a Sourcing at Magic panel. “The smart factory is that factory that takes what this new technology has to offer.”

One of those things this new technology has to offer is real-time information through the entire process of your production system, with material handling technology that can get pieces to the right places in the factory, minimize handling, and providing real-time data on where things are on the process to maximize efficiency.

The apparel sector is long overdue for such savvy technology.

“If we look at the sewing machine and we look at an apparel factory, there’s very little that has changed since the introduction of the sewing machine in the 1800s,” Vega said. “We will encounter many difficulties implementing Industry 4.0…but I think this is one of those major shifts that we cannot ignore.”

Today, sewing machines are getting smarter and more autonomous, and the technology to bring it all together is getting more efficient and less cost prohibitive.

For Henderson Sewing, a supplier of industrial sewing machines since 1968, there’s little the sewing machine isn’t doing.

Now there’s vision directed sewing, which allows the machine to “see” what it needs to sew and where it needs to sew it; there’s auto drapery pleats; robots sewing towels and elastic rings; the ExoHand robotic arm that can be attached to a human to be “taught” how to perform a function; units for auto collar and cuff sewing; and sew bots for footwear.

These advancements are what’s brought Adidas to build its U.S.-based Speedfactory in Cherokee County, Georgia, and Under Armour to establish its Baltimore-based UA Lighthouse with the vision of doing local for local production.

Moves like this will become more commonplace as technology makes U.S. manufacturing more viable.

“The USA today is cost competitive,” Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing, said. “We are about 2 or 3 percent from what the China price is. We are competitive today in America.”