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Living and working in San Francisco, I couldn’t avoid conversations about technology even if I wanted to. Silicon Valley is home to hundreds of startups, industry disruptors and even legacy technology companies that are being disrupted by upstarts! Having built a career in the apparel industry, however, I feel like I’ve been insulated from the rapid pace of technological change at times. The apparel industry has not been quick to embrace technology and remains a sector that relies on the instinct of merchants, the art of trend spotting and a labor-intensive supply chain.
Especially in the apparel supply chain, which is a global behemoth that connects together large, multinational manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, adapting to technological change has been slow. There was little incentive to innovate and huge switching costs to amortize. But across the past few years, technology has become impossible to ignore and players in the apparel supply chain are starting to realize the need to explore innovations like robotics, 3D imaging and artificial intelligence.
Robots: Rise of the Machines
I’ve been in hundreds of apparel factories all around the world, and one thing is consistent in all of them: manufacturing garments remains a highly labor-intensive process. One factory I worked with revealed that it required more than 120 people to produce a single pair of jeans!
Once inexpensive and abundant in apparel sourcing countries like China and Bangladesh, labor is becoming more expensive as wages increase and more scarce as people choose to work in other industries. Also, because humans tend to be less precise than machines at manufacturing, robots have been viewed as a solution that can produce efficiently at scale and achieve consistency in quality and execution.
It turns out robots are great at some tasks, but not yet advanced enough to perform others. I’ve been to factories with automated fabric cutting, and plenty of factory warehouses where robots are used to move raw materials and finished goods. There are even machines that perform QC duties like fabric inspection when raw materials arrive from upstream suppliers. However, sewing fabric together requires an intuitive touch to ease materials through a sewing machine. Robots cannot modulate the marginally different levels of pressure and tension that are required when working with a loose jersey knit or with a rigid denim.
I’m hopeful that factories can incorporate more automation into their manufacturing processes, but the technology is not quite there yet.
3D Imaging: From Gaming to Designing
The promise of 3D technology to shorten the product development process is a trend that many brands and manufacturers are embracing. Imagine a world where you don’t need to ship samples all over the world to see how design changes drape on body! Technology has advanced to the point where 3D imaging - much of which originated in video games - can help designers and technical designers understand how pattern and design adjustments will impact the performance, aesthetic and fit of a garment.
3D technology has been especially effective when using it for product categories like t-shirts and blouses, but at ThirdLove, where we work in a product category (women’s intimates) where there is no ease over body and tolerance levels are measured in millimeters, 3D technology cannot compete with live fit models and physical samples.
As this technology becomes more precise, it will also be important to better mimic the wide range of body shapes and sizes in the population. 3D technology has fallen short when it comes to plus sizing, where flesh and weight may not be distributed consistently across sizes or body types. For this growing segment of the market (and again at ThirdLove, where we celebrate inclusivity by offering a range of more than 80 sizes!), there is still much work to be done in order to make 3D imaging technology practical.
Artificial Intelligence: Further Complicating Global Supply Chains
I’ve been fortunate to work at companies that have incorporated artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science into the way we operate. At ThirdLove, our Fit Finder® sizing tool is powered by an algorithm that gets smarter and more precise as more customers take the survey and input data. The algorithm can uncover powerful insights, like the one that led us to create half-cup sizes for women who fall between traditional bra sizes!
While these innovations are great for customers, and beneficial for the company to offer, they’re very difficult to manage with a traditional supply chain. Apparel factories have historically been built on the idea of mass production and high volume (I remember one factory sharing with me that it breaks even when producing a single style on the eighth day of production!), so introducing more and more size variants is a challenge many factories are unwilling to embrace.
This level of product personalization - whether it is size, color or style - is here to stay. AI tools are shaping assortments, driving new business models and creating expectations that consumers can buy unique, customized products. It’s a technology that has changed the way merchants and buyers assort their lines, and supply chains are just starting to catch up.
Apparel Manufacturing: Time to Adapt and Innovate
Apparel manufacturing is an industry that was buoyed by the introduction of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement in 1974, and only recently has had to adapt to modern times with its expiration in 2005. During that period of growth, manufacturers were not forced to keep pace with advances in technology and automation. Given how rapidly technology changes today, and how quickly new technologies are introduced, apparel manufacturing will not only need to embrace these changes, but also anticipate new innovations to stay competitive.