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The Apparel Supply Chain Still Needs a Major Tech Infusion, Experts Say

Automation and AI have become integral parts of nearly every industry, including fashion. But when it comes to the apparel supply chain, clunky, haphazard processes and communication issues between suppliers, factories and brands still hold the sector back from truly entering the 21st century.

At Sourcing at MAGIC in Las Vegas Tuesday, apparel manufacturing experts discussed the sector’s ongoing need to use technology to streamline operations and marketing to make them quicker, more efficient and more quality-conscious.

Led by Sourcing Journal president, Edward Hertzman, the panel of industry experts spoke to the reasons for apparel sourcing’s slow adoption of new technologies, and the tools poised to really make waves in the space.

Production

Ed Gribbin, chief engagement officer at Impactiva, opined that there can never be too much emphasis on technology when it comes to production. While brands and retailers have started to react to the new solutions available to them, they’re not doing so consistently throughout their supply chains, he said.

What’s more, according to Gribbin, if brands are undervaluing technology at this point in the game, then they are probably “grossly undervaluing human capital,” too.

With 60 million people working in apparel and footwear factories across the globe, Gribbin argued that most manufacturers treat them like “cogs in a wheel, trained not to say anything or to use their minds.” Their goal is to produce as quickly as possible—and that’s where quality can suffer.

Impactiva’s tech solutions promote the concept of lean manufacturing, or minimizing waste while optimizing productivity. The company also provides quality control tools that track product discrepancies that would make goods unsellable.

“Most apparel companies [operate] at 50-60 percent efficiency,” Gribbin said, underscoring a major issue in manufacturing. And the reason this number isn’t higher, is because many factory owners and operators aren’t empowering workers to think rather than simply operate. “If you get the factory operating at 30-40 percent greater efficiency, the owners of those factories see a long term possibility for growing their business.”

Impactiva automates tech solutions using data obtained at the factory level. “We figured out in pilots with big global brands that there is data on the factory floor in terms of productivity, skill sets, building capacity with fewer people, and pushing through deliveries significantly faster,” Gribbin said.

The goal is to give factory workers the tech tools they need to spot problems quickly, and rectify them systematically. Eliminating waste means more profits, Gribbin explained.

“There’s no excuse for not making zero-defect product, and if you train artisans with digital education to recognize and pull defective product you will get there,” he said.

A wealth of consumer data

While some companies have figured out how to put certain technology into stores, or how to gather data from e-commerce sales, most don’t know what to do with all that data once they have it. And some are innovating in the area of technology before they’re ready to see the whole experience through, simply so they can keep up with competitors.

The concept of “innovation envy,” or the idea that “everyone is going faster and doing better than us,” has paralyzed brands from taking the necessary steps toward incremental improvement—opening the door for competitors, like China, to capitalize, according to Barry McGeough, former founder of Innovation Next at PVH and head of Next Now, a digital experiential marketing agency.

“As an industry, we are still trying figure out what to do with the data about consumers,” McGeough said, referencing the wealth of information brands capture through marketing and sales but often neglect to leverage efficiently.

When brands think about innovation, they should connect it to the strategy of future-proofing their businesses, McGeough said.

Stitch Fix, for example, has used AI and machine learning tools to give consumers a personalized experience. That concept has bolstered the $1.5 billion brand’s astronomical growth—and it’s not even a decade old.

McGeough cautioned that the textile and apparel industries are some of the only sectors in the world that have been largely untouched by data, because key players have not realized that they’re sitting on a goldmine of valuable consumer insights.

It may be up to the tech sector to help fashion companies figure out how to really use data to their best advantage.

“The really big ‘thing’ that’s going to disrupt the industry—we have yet to see it,” McGeough said. “The apparel industry can continue to ignore data until companies like Zilingo come up behind us.”

New tech

Four-year-old technology-led supply chain platform, Zilingo, began with inventory management and sales tracking, but has since graduated to include visibility into a brand’s sourcing and manufacturing operations, too.

“We looked at the fashion industry and realized it was completely broken,” said Zilingo’s head of strategy, Billy Naveed. “What we’re doing is working with about 4,000 sourcing partners in countries around the world, and bringing their HR systems, logistics APIs…the entire operating system of a factory onto an app.”

Zilingo helps brands “procure smarter,” or source more effectively, while cutting lead times by up to two-thirds—a critical element in meeting speed to market demands. The company also helps them source more cheaply, Naveed said.

Admittedly, Naveed said breaking into the insular apparel industry has been tough for Zilingo. “When I speak to people in the U.S. with 20 years of supply chain experience, they want to know what I’m going to teach them,” he said of brands’ reticence to adopt new technology.

However, he said, “If people invest in their brands and use companies like ours, we can use that to drive ideas.”

According to Zilingo, the platform levels the playing field like Instagram did for creators. Naveed explained that brands on the platform can also “follow trends, produce faster and do it with data.”

The company is working on transparency programs to give brands visibility into quality control issues at the factory level—and empowering factories to use that data in real time.

“We have our own quality control modules,” Naveed said. Line managers have access to tablets and a heat map of where problems are arising with product, allowing them to zero in on issues and correct them quickly.

Zilingo provides that data to the brands, Naveed said, and the assurance that data is being tracked gives them peace of mind, whether or not they look at it daily.

The idea of transparency and visibility provided by data may also make brands more attractive to investors, Naveed said.

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