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Why Just-in-Time Manufacturing is Having a Moment

Make, market, sell. In a crowded marketplace it’s a process that no longer guarantees success.

Today, consumers are more empowered, technology is more advanced and retail is more uncertain than ever. These forces call for a new model for delivering goods consumers are sure to love—and purchase.

And the change starts with shifting the focus away from first costs. Hayato Nishi, senior business development at Shima Seiki USA, said by not considering margin opportunities, apparel companies are held back from realizing the revenue gains new technologies facilitate.

“Many companies do not dedicate enough budget to test out new products that may cost more to produce but yield more return in the end due to risk aversion. Unfortunately, many brands are stuck in old processes and only focus on minimizing cost and producing in greater scale to increase margins,” he said.

This old-school thinking is the reason the market is saturated with mass produced goods and caught in a predictable—and detrimental—markdown storyline.

To break the cycle, Shima Seiki promotes just-in-time production, in which goods are created on demand. The company’s WHOLEGARMENT® 3D technology knits entire garments directly from yarn, skipping the fabric stage and eliminating the need for labor-intensive processes such as cutting, sewing or linking. And it happens real time. So rather than making goods and hoping they sell, companies can produce to demand.

“This means that retailers no longer have to forecast demand, order excess inventories in advance, manage warehouse inventories, produce cut waste and discount to get rid of the excess inventories at the end of each season,” Nishi said.

And unlike other on-demand models, there’s no need for fashion firms to platform a variety of fabrics. With WHOLEGARMENT®, brands have greater agility because the only inventory they need to hold is yarn, which can be knit into a variety of different styles, based on the orders that come in.

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The just-in-time solution also has the added benefit of providing a production option that can help apparel businesses become more sustainable. The knitting machine results in no cut waste and because goods are created based on the sales volume, there’s no overstock to destroy or dump at the end of the season.

That sustainability angle is what initially attracted direct-to-consumer brand Ministry of Supply.

The company wanted a solution that could meet its high performance standards and do so in a way that was less environmentally impactful. Ultimately, WHOLEGARMENT®, which results in 30 percent less fabric waste, proved to be a “no-brainer.”

“Even beyond sustainability, on-demand manufacturing enables rapid prototyping, getting new garments and styles to market faster and better inventory control—it’s better both for retailers and the planet,” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president at Ministry of Supply.

Using the 3D knitting machine, Ministry of Supply is able to design and knit a prototype in one day.

Two years ago, the company decided to bring a WHOLEGARMENT® machine into its flagship store as a test. With the machine on site, shoppers could get a garment in 90 minutes that was made to fit both their bodies and their personal tastes.

“We learned that having the machine in Boston gave us an opportunity to forge stronger connections with our customers—through showing them how our garments are designed, they get a peek behind the curtain at our supply chain and sustainable production methods,” Amarasiriwardena said.

It also demonstrated how much the brand’s customers want the ability to customize their looks. That realization led Ministry of Supply to launch 3D Print-Knit Shops as well as a Built to Order shirting collection, which gives shoppers the ability to personalize several aspects of each look.

The move to customization just makes sense to Amarasiriwardena, as almost every other area of a consumer’s life can be designed just for them from, bespoke bottles to vitamins assortments curated with their specific goals in mind.

“Customization needs to be top of mind as people become more accustomed to brands that cater to their specific needs. The challenge is to do it in a way that is relevant and meaningful for your specific brand, and not just a gimmick,” he said.

A Consumer Review report from Deloitte consulting found that in some categories, up to 50 percent of consumers want customized products or services. And younger demographics show the highest interested in personalized apparel with 50 percent or more of shoppers ages 16 to 39 expressing interest. Even more encouraging, these shoppers are willing to pay more for these bespoke goods.

The report also revealed that customers want to be guided through the process of selecting their design options. As a result, Shima Seiki advises brands to adopt a mass customization strategy that provides shoppers with preset parameters from which to choose. Uniqlo has a model up and running in Japan that gives shoppers the opportunity to adjust the length of their dresses according to their heights.

Nishi said studies like this show the potential benefits personalization offers.

“Businesses that take advantage of personalization early on will have an opportunity to create a differentiated product offering that may yield a price premium while improving foot traffic to brick and mortar,” he said. “Personalization could also help improve inventory turnover efficiency and reduce costs, for a more sustainable path to growth.”

To help brands and retailers get mass customization up and running, Shima Seiki demonstrated the Made2Fit by WHOLEGARMENT® solution at ITMA in June. The process starts with a body scan using a smartphone, then that data is used to automatically adjust pattern dimensions and finally the customized garment is knit on the spot.

But even with the technology in place, Nishi admits in order for apparel brands to capitalize on this opportunity, they will need to reconsider their business operations from manufacturing through customer service.

“There needs to be a shift in business operations to consider value-added products marketed at higher price points over creating low-priced oversaturated goods,” Nishi said. “This completely different approach to selling goods requires a lot of restructuring and rethinking of traditional existing business operations.”

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