Over the past year-plus, the pandemic has significantly changed the apparel business in myriad ways. The path forward, and how to operate under the “new normal,” permeated discussions at the Sewn Products Equipment and Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA) Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference, held during Techtextil North America in Raleigh, N.C.
During the conference, industry representatives, academics, experts and thought leaders took a closer look at what’s happening now and offered a glimpse into the pandemic’s lasting effects on business operations.
Shifting Supply Chains
With the pandemic creating supply chain disruptions due to factory closures, shipping logjams, and reduced availability of raw materials, product delays have become par for the course. Couple that with increased consumer demand, and many apparel companies are struggling to keep up with orders.
“Companies are re-evaluating how can they respond to customer demand rapidly,” said Mariano Amezcua, president, DAP America. “How do they invest in inventory? In the past, they might have been keeping the inventory to absolute minimums to increase efficiency. Now it’s, ‘how can it get it closer to my customer?’”
One option is partnering with more localized sources to provide not only easier access to textiles, but also the capability to offer customization.
“It’s about accessibility,” said Leonard Marano, president, Americas, Lectra. “If the consumer has access to something that can be customized in a cost-effective way, they’ll select that over a mass produced item.”
The key, according to Marano, is using a mix of suppliers, both domestic and overseas, depending upon product need.
“Are you ever going to have someone producing a million jeans a week, cut and sewn in Texas? No, probably not,” he said. “But if you look at the immediate gratification, the consumer now expects things like being able to customize a shirt by taking a picture of yourself, and you can’t get that overseas. And that will be prevalent in the U.S. because you can charge more for that experience.”
And after the pandemic, which came on the heels of tariffs that added cost to imports, diversification may be the biggest shift in the supply chain going forward.
“After the experience with China with the trade war and tariffs, I don’t think anybody will put all their eggs in one basket like many folks did with China,” Marano said.
Diversification on the factory floor—integrating digital technology alongside highly trained workers to increase productivity—is another strategy some companies are pursuing to respond to issues raised by the pandemic. This flexible factory model allows manufacturers to monitor and respond more quickly when problems arise.
“A flexible factory is a smart manufacturing plant, digitally connected with control through a centralized network,” said Frank Henderson, CEO, Henderson Sewing Machine Company. “It’s not only automated—it’s got lean processes, but it’s also independent and adaptive to change.”
The flexible factory model utilizes digital instruction screens on machinery to streamline the construction process of garments, with workers cross-trained to work in pods dedicated to individual steps of production.
“They automate as much as they can for the two-dimensional parts, and then the workers are doing the final assembly on the three-dimensional stuff,” Henderson said. “The workers are grouped around cells, so here’s a knit cell, a woven cell, a jean cell—it’s by cell structure and it’s product-driven and routed by design.”
Will Duncan, executive director of SEAMS, said Hugo Boss has had success with this model, and they’ve found the flexible factory floor not only improves productivity, but also job satisfaction among workers.
“By providing the digital training, they have a knowledgeable workforce, and with the screens, workers can pull up the information they need to have access to new patterns or any changes,” he said. “When introducing the technology to the cutting room floor we found the workers were more excited about doing their work.”
Thinking Beyond the Stitch
Introducing new technologies to the factory also means rethinking the way some garments are constructed.
“We want to break down the traditional barriers of product creation—beyond the stitch means engineering stitch by stitch so you can engineer a garment from the yarn level to the end product, getting every product consistently and efficiently off the machines,” said Hayato Nishi, public relations manager, Shima Seiki USA. “It’s going outside the concept of piecing different panels together.”
And in some cases, that means forgoing sewing altogether in favor of processes like bonding seams to create a smoother look and feel.
“With bonding technology, we’re working with a fabric that’s either fitting fashion, function or comfort, whether it’s undergarments where they don’t want a seam to show or a piece of athletic wear where any stitching creates an abrasion point,” said Rick Frye, director of engineering/sales IPD, Brother International Corp. “And this bonding technology allows four processes to be done in one adhesive, applied consistently and accurately so it doesn’t bleed out the edge of the garment and also doesn’t leave a void that can come undone.”
Beyond increasing productivity, embracing new technologies will give domestic manufacturers advantages that will allow them to compete with imports.
“We need to be on the cutting edge of technology and know that’s our business—we’re not going to take the industrial arm from China,” said Dr. Andre West, director, Zeis Textiles Extension at North Carolina State University Wilson College of Textiles. “We have to embrace robotics, and we have to embrace everything that’s happening to make the human being sustainable in their own right so they don’t have to do the hard labor.”
One of the key components to adapting manufacturing models to better respond to disruptions is training current employees to work with technology, while also recruiting young workers to the factory.
“You have to have a refresh of your skills every five years,” said Jill Coleman, vice president of global sales and business development, MOTIF. “The pattern maker now has to understand coding—it’s that traditional employee working with the technology to manage digitization.”
Recruiting the next generation of factory workers has proven trickier for many companies, but conveying your company’s positive impact—be it locally or globally—is likely to appeal to socially conscious young people.
“In terms of Gen Z line workers, the thing that we advise manufacturers to do is shift the way they describe their company to the meaning and the social impact of the work they do,” said Sarah Krasley, CEO, Shimmy Technologies. “There are so many sustainable materials that manufacturers are experimenting with, and that’s a wonderful public benefit that will get young people excited.”
Overall, these different strategies point to one goal—creating adaptive, self-sufficient factories that can not only survive a disruption, but thrive in its wake.
“It’s about diversity and risk mitigation where we create a model where we’re not dependent on one partner,” said Paul Magel, president, business applications and technology outsourcing division, Computer Generated Solutions. “Because something’s going to happen again, and you want to be ready.”