It’s been a long time since the days of robust apparel manufacturing in the United States, but in that time, the process has been little evolved.
In 1856, the Sewing Machine Trust was established to pool together patents related to the invention of the chain stitch sewing machine. Combined with steam engine power, these cutting edge technologies of the day brought together and created the advent of the modern apparel industry, as we know it today.
Commercial enterprises were assembled, jobs created, cities prospered and fortunes were made. For the first time in human history, clothing could be manufactured in a mass produced process. Production methods where broken down to specific tasks, patterns were graded and multiple plies of fabric were cut, ready to be sewn. The sewing machine operator picked and placed single plies of material from a pile and with their skilled hand-eye coordination, sewed together specific parts of the garment. These parts where then past down a human assembly line to produce a finished garment with a specific design, time, quality, and cost.
Jump forward 163 years and if you entered an apparel factory today, you’d witness that same chain stitch sewing machine technology with a human operator repetitively picking and placing single plies of fabric together to produce only parts of a garment. It seems the only innovation the apparel industry has embraced is where those machines and operators geographically sit. At present, upward of 98 percent of apparel purchased in the U.S. has been out-sourced and off-shored to distant lands to take advantage of low wages, lax environmental standards and, at times, questionable labor practices.
The domestic apparel industry has become an apparel marketing business by abdicating its responsibility of investment to upgrading production practices. Today, in real time, the industry simply picks another country with cheaper labor to skirt trade tariffs or environmental burdens. The result has decimated the entire apparel and textile industry in the U.S.
With the current challenges to established supply chains due to rising costs, tariffs or political unrest, the short-term solution of moving production to a different country will not resolve the issue for long.
Consumer demand is unpredictable, full-price sell through is decreasing and environmental costs are challenging the status quo. The antiquated chain stitch machine/human operator model is no longer competitive. To survive market pressures, apparel companies will need to speed up production to react more quickly and produce products that address consumer demands, financial concerns and environmental challenges. Just look at other manufacturing sectors; transportation, electronics, even agriculture. All have embraced some form of automation to produce goods more efficiently.
And there are ways for the apparel industry to take similar strides, like with the Formafit system, for one. Still in concept phase, Formafit is an automated process for apparel manufacturing, that goes from the bolt of cloth to a finished garment in a 45-second cycle. The system combines 3-D fabric molding and ultrasonic bonding technologies to simultaneously affect the shape of the garment and the cutting/seaming of materials. The system requires the usage of synthetic fabrics, such as, polyester, nylon, spandex and polypropylene and can accommodate a variety of knit, woven and non-woven textiles, all off-the-shelf materials. Although these technologies have been used throughout the industry and are inherent to synthetic materials, the Formafit system addresses the material handling challenges of traditional cut and sew methods related to automation.
As a futuristic scenario, if a consumer wanted a custom cycling jersey, they could collect a dozen soda bottles and recycle them into a hopper, which would grind them back into polymer pellets, which could then be extruded into fiber, which could then be woven/knit/processed into fabric, which could then be fed directly into the Formafit system, which would have flexible molds to accommodate the varied sizes and styles. The consumer could then step on a platform to have their body 3-D scanned and with a fashion designers’ input or software suggestions from the consumer, print on-demand graphic patterns on the fabrics, to create a unique garment in real-time and immediate production. At present, all of these processes exist except on the garment production side.
Apparel companies should not be passive when it comes to automation machinery. The solution will be a combination of in-house developed technologies, collaborations with manufacturers and investment in start-up technology companies. These investments and more importantly, the will of apparel industry leaders to follow through on this vision is the only way this will happen.
Brett Stern is an industrial designer and the inventor of the Formafit technology. He has had a career inventing, designing and crafting consumer and industrial products. Brett has developed some form of intellectual property to cover projects ranging from surgical instruments/implantable medical devices to developing novel potato chip flavors and a better tasting colonoscopy prep. He is the author of Inventors at Work:The Minds and Motivation Behind Modern Inventions and 99 Ways To Open A Bottle Of Beer Without A Bottle Opener. He rides his bike in Portland, OR.