Whether out of necessity due to early pandemic lockdowns or to streamline processes, the traditionally analog ways of working in apparel supply chains are increasingly being digitalized. During sessions at the PI Apparel Supply Chain Tech Forum 2022, experts from Under Armour, PVH and more pointed to the possibilities of technology to improve supply chain operations and collaboration—whether related to order tracking, quality or color management.
“The new normal really surprised all of us, and it was inevitable,” said Kaveen Ratnaweera, deputy general manager, digital transformation and strategy at MAS Intimates, MAS Holdings. “We had no option but to change, evolve and to accept technology like never before.”
While MAS, a manufacturer for companies from Nike to PVH, has been working on 3D design technology since around 2006, this was hastened by the pandemic. More recently, the company has worked on digitalizing materials, leveraging its combined material and 3D capabilities. The company hopes to reduce sampling by 78 percent over the next two years.
Technology is only valuable if employees buy in to using it. MAS recently underwent a shift to a new version of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, and it involved 15 percent of its workforce in this transformation, a record. This included a cross sample of workers, including those at the factory level. For some of these participants, the new skills learned during this process allowed them to later move into management roles. MAS also creates a “data-first culture” through initiatives like a hackathon, during which employees around the globe try to solve problems related to data.
Ratnaweera believes that “sustained recovery is about going beyond the transaction.” Exemplifying its own “strategic collaboration” with partners, the supplier has team members that sit in customers’ offices, allowing them to work side-by-side and easing communication. “In the past, before the pandemic, it was all about vendors communicating better to brands. In the new normal, with all the uncertainty that’s happening in the retail world, the expectation from the supply chain is that brands do the same,” he said. “Tell us what you’re hearing, tell us what you’re going to do with inventory, let us know so we can plan better.”
In an example of its partnerships, one of the manufacturer’s customer brands was struggling to get products to market on time because of delays with approvals on aspects like color. MAS suggested switching from physical samples to virtual reviews to speed up the timeline. The producer handled the technology implementation and created renderings of garments, leveraging its capabilities. Within a year, 100 percent of the brand’s color sampling and print placement was done in 3D. “What’s super exciting is they still have not invested in a single 3D license,” Ratnaweera said. “And that’s the power of your supply chain. That’s the power of rethinking and reimagining how we do business together.”
A panel during the event, moderated by Natific senior partner Doug Bynum, dove into digitalization of color management with executives from PVH and Under Armour. Both firms had digital color technology in place before offices shut down early in the pandemic. This made the transition to remote work easier than it otherwise would have been if they were relying solely on viewing physical samples in a lightbox. “Had we not preemptively implemented those color execution digitization processes, the pandemic would have been an absolute nightmare,” said Ryan Stanley, senior director of color at PVH.
Rather than subjective color matching, using technology turns it into an objective practice. Speaking of the experience of creating its digital color processes, Stanley said, “Education played a really strong component of that—partnering closely with design, partnering closely with our raw materials team, partnering closely with our suppliers and educating them on the objective digital measurements, the reflectance curves, what those numbers actually mean.”
For Under Armour, Natific’s Optimized Spectral Curve enables it to start the product development process knowing which colors that designers picked for the season will be feasible on materials like nylon. Rather than running into issues later, such as finding out a color cannot be achieved on a certain fabric or that it won’t be sufficiently colorfast, Under Armour knows upfront if it must make a substitution and designers can create with awareness of any limitations. “We’re able to meet the aesthetics of our concept team, but not have to chase down a million problems and ask product teams to make changes to their styles later,” said Marielle Newman, director, color and print operations for Under Armour.
Digitalization also speeds up color timelines. Newman estimated that when using its earlier processes, it would take 60 days for turnaround on the average lab dip. Comparatively, lab dips from an accredited supplier for a solid color that has been deemed feasible now take just two weeks. Prints, which used to take up to 120 days, are down to 60 days.
For Under Armour, color management has shifted from largely analog processes like entering comments into Excel to more streamlined systems that feed into its product lifecycle management (PLM) platform. “We’ve cut down significantly on a lot of the really tedious time-consuming stuff, so we can focus on the higher class of problem,” Newman said.
One of these higher classes of problems, per Stanley, is working with PVH’s innovation team and dye chemical companies to look at the environmental impact of colors and explore what lower impact options might be available.
Having more objective knowledge about color also cuts down on waste, Newman said. There are fewer samples being shipped internationally and lab dips aren’t being done on colors that will fail. Avoiding color quality and match issues also means less production waste.
Despite the technology available for supply chain management, Cody Kelly, BDM at QIMAone, said in a presentation that most companies are still using manual processes like spreadsheets, emails and WhatsApp messages. But this causes delays in communication. Instead, a “digital collaboration system” can connect the entire supply chain from raw materials to retail.
“There’s no space for error,” he said. “We don’t want to take a chance by not looping in and not creating what I would call a complete cycle.”
Digital collaboration also offers data and insights on aspects including lead times and failure rates on specific products or categories. For instance, if buttons keep failing on a jacket, visibility enables a brand to switch away from that trim supplier.
Proactive quality management is important, since as Cody noted, all it takes is a short TikTok video to ruin a brand’s reputation. “A lot of times when I have conversations with companies, they spent millions of dollars in marketing,” Cod saidy. “But the actual QC process…they spend very little on until it’s utterly necessary.”
He stressed the importance of creating a “culture of quality,” since employees at companies without this in place make 85 percent more mistakes.
Artificial intelligence and other technologies support quality teams in their quest to create the best possible product. “Technology should never replace human beings—it should only assist them,” Kelly said.