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Could Automation in Apparel Manufacturing End Modern-Day Slavery?

As robotic manufacturing takes hold in the apparel industry, brands will need to begin designing products specifically for automated processes, Softwear Automation chief commercial officer Pete Santora said at an event ahead of Texprocess Americas in Atlanta Monday evening.

This evolution will require a considerable mindset shift, but could create better products delivered to market at the speed consumers now demand.

Design for automation is based around the tenets of collaboration, automation and design, with the goal of moving “automation up the decision-making process,” Santora said, so that the brand designer is no longer dictating the statement of work to the contract manufacturer, who ends up automating just one singular facet of the total production process. Instead, centering design around automated processes could reduce waste and enable new efficiencies, Santora said.

To further elevate full-service apparel production automation, Softwear partnered with Avery Dennison, which is integrating its labeling solutions into the robotics company’s end-to-end sewing platform.

“This partnership is part of our focus on innovation and anticipating what the market needs maybe even before the market recognizes it,” said Michael Colarossi, vice president, innovation, product line management and sustainability at Avery Dennison. “And we’re looking with our solutions to give the flexibility of printing on demand, of embellishment on demand, and changing how a garment is produced, to try to deliver flexibility with simplicity.”

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Given that 80 percent of millennials now expect customized and personalized good and services on their time and terms, apparel companies cannot continue pushing outmoded business models to serve modern shoppers. “The supply chain today is not going to be able to cope much longer unless we start making the shift,” Colarossi said.

“We fundamentally believe that by bringing digitization, speed and automated solutions, we will be able to help some of these major [environmental] problems,” he added. “We’ll be able to unlock opportunities to do mass customization and personalization, and if you’re able to do it on shore, close to the point of consumption, suddenly your waste [streams], energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions drop dramatically.”

Beyond achieving a 10 percent efficiency gain through automation at its Chinese factory, Tian Yuan Garments (TY Garments) also has seen output jump 20 percent, worker productivity improve, and on-time orders reach 99 percent, Joey Walsh, TY Garments’s manufacturing excellence manager, said.

Now TY Garments is looking to enable automated production in its Little Rock, Ark., facility in the next few years.

“We want the whole supply chain made in the U.S.: materials sourcing, embellishment and manufacturing,” Walsh explained. “We anticipate intelligent manufacturing will become unstoppable.”

Ultimately, automation and Industry 4.0 are inevitable advancements that could aid not just brands seeking to serve demanding new customers but also elevate many of the workers in the supply chain. “Our goal is to end modern-day slavery, which our industry tends to have,” Palaniswamy “Raj” Rajan, Softwear Automation’s chairman & CEO, said.

Avery Dennision echoed those sentiments.

“We have an obligation to be a force for good in this industry,” Colarossi said.