Demand for On-Demand
Buzz Surrounding Smart Factories & Automated Tech Gets Loud
Execs participating in virtual trade show discussions last month outlined new and emerging methods of manufacturing that are re-inventing the textile supply chain from seed to shelf. Across the board leaders agreed that sophisticated digitalization and a streamlined approach to production are key factors going forward as consumers increasingly demand product available with a few clicks.
Advanced technologies are being developed to keep up with this changing environment. Contactless body scanning done on an iPhone, integration of robotics on the factory floor, AI for real time data collection, are all being implemented and are expected to move the industry forward.
While made to measure production models, 3D body scanning, and customer virtual experiences were already in play, the COVID impact on production and consumer buying behavior has now steered the textile industry into its future.
“COVID has shown that you can’t expect things to be the way they were,” says Dr. Mike Fralix, CEO of the North Carolina firm [TC]2. Rather, according to Fralix, we’ve entered an on-demand world with digital body models, real-looking virtual people and 3D in motion visualization connecting to a new era of shopping. He adds, “the technology isn’t new, but the applications are.”
Fralix highlights a couple of trends: The current surge in non-contact shopping will usher in touch-free body scanning for on demand manufacturing models. On-demand will extend to color on demand with waterless coloring integrated into the supply chains. And 3D printing, in tandem with advances in bioengineering, will enhance sustainable development.
Bio-printers are an example of this growing field of innovation. Fralix recently learned of a new project with KFC that offers 3D printed chicken nuggets. “If you can bio-engineer a chicken you should be able to bio-engineer a t-shirt,” states Fralix, who spoke during a virtual presentation on the Future of the Fashion Industry hosted by the SEAMS organization.
The SEAMS online discussion offered a range of perspectives on this new era of manufacturing. Based on activity within the SEAMS membership, executive director Will Duncan is seeing orders for very specialized product and niche market need. Additionally, orders for wholesale and private label are down while direct-to-consumer fulfillment is up. PPE demand is starting to slow, however, Duncan continues to field multiple calls a day for domestic production. According to Duncan’s own informal survey, SEAMS members are optimistic about the future; 50 percent project strong sales in the future; 36 percent see consistent sales; 14 percent believe sales will flat.
Duncan thinks a key factor hindering USA production is an ingrained cost-based sourcing strategy. “We’ve got to change brand and retailer mindsets,” comments Duncan.
A re-invention of manufacturing to smart factories with lean lines of production and direct shipping resulting in a reduction of touch points along the supply chain is a step in the right direction. Already the industry is seeing new emerging brands, with online businesses that don’t have a traditional offshore/low cost model influencing a marketplace shift. “If you can differentiate the product, and change marketing and design, consumers are ready to listen in new ways,” explains Dr. Trevor Little professor of Textile and Apparel Management, Wilson College of Textiles at NC State University. He adds, “Think profit model not cost model.”
Lab 141 is a good example. “The future of clothing is personal,” states Andrea Madho, CEO and co-founder of Lab 141 who advocates for localized, micro factory production and believes her technology is the future. Her company specializes in enhancing the consumer experience with cutting edge “made for me” manufacturing.
“Business as usual is no longer acceptable: COVID has made it crystal clear that the system has to change,” stated Madho during the Future of the Factory session hosted by Techtextil NA. The Lab 141 style of production eliminates the need for sizes and inventory. An advanced manufacturing process, it integrates logistics, analytics and robotics to produce personalized made to measure garments while also reducing waste thus decreasing its environmental impact.
Lab 141 is gaining a lot of traction, according to Madho who partners with software specialists Tukatech, Lectra and Gerber Technology. In addition to brand interest, Madho says a mall developer recently expressed interest in implementing her technology.
Eric Spackey, CEO, Bluewater Defense joined Madho in the TechTextil discussion that highlighted integrating robotic and AI technology into manufacturing.
“We are always looking to streamline processes in our factory and robotics can increase efficiency. But the bigger question is how to integrate robots into the entire process. It takes big spending to get that off the ground,” explains Spackey, who has expanded automation at Bluewater Defense to manage three to four machines. “Right now robotics is a ‘green field’ that won’t grow and develop until the infrastructure improves.”
Bluewater has four plants with good sewers, but Spackey believes that model is becoming outdated as processes change to “click & knit.” He describes how the defense market would incorporate recruit body scans — eventually done by individuals on their phones — to produce made-to-measure uniforms in an integrated 3D knit and 3D print system. “It’s exciting to think of building the infrastructure with investment to capture information and then bolt on capabilities when you can,” said Spackey.
Another area to watch is AI. This technology could revolutionize sorting data quickly, in real time, to identify problems as well identify potential issues “Near term AI is on the ERP side but going forward could be on the PLM side,” Spackey offers. For instance, when aligning tech packs for a new product on the product line. “Adaptive responsive data is key,” Spackey believes.
The takeaway from both seminars is to make an impact on how future factories operate more efficiently and profitably it’s going to take a substantial amount of capital, from all avenues, and large-scale commitment, from government and corporations alike, to help innovate and advance domestic systems.
According to textile executives, the potential for smart factory production is great. We’re not there yet, say execs, but they believe without doubt that on demand is the future.
Design Call to Action
Eighty percent of the impact of the garment happens at the design stage. If the design is not good then the product is not going to be good,” states Anastasia Vouyouka, CEO of Telestia, who participated in the SEAMS seminar on the Future of the Fashion Industry last month.
She encourages a call to action for an industry correction on the design process and advocates for a shift in the learning paradigm in fashion education to arm today’s fashion designers with more technical creative skills.
Vouyouka believes in a contemporary mode of design thinking that takes from tradition, but builds on the technology fundamental to the future of design. “To reconcile the traditional but obsolete and slow way, with a fast-paced, more virtual way of designing will link digital tech culture and virtual fashion,” explains Vouyouka, using her company’s software technology and online design workshops as example.
Her company offers a 10-step program from start to finish garment design. The Telestia Creator Fashion Design CAD software, based on the Telestia fashion design methodology, helps users easily and accurately to create proportional designs even for those that don’t feel they have the skills. The company also offers design libraries and tools for professional presentation.
“With all the online selling happening, it is so important to give people an experience they won’t forget,” Vouyouka states. “No touch scanning is a big advantage, and provides a great experience.”