Supply Chain & AI
Future Think
Artificial Intelligence & Outsmarting Supply Chain Setbacks.
During a recent episode of The Future of Everything podcast hosted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Revathi Advaithi, a member of the U.S. Government advisory committee on supply chain policies said, “It is shocking to me that in this day and age, we don’t understand how much supply or demand is needed to run the world, with so much data and so much information out there.”

Advaithi, CEO of Flex, a global manufacturer for everyday products, added, ”AI can help improve utilization of equipment, help gain knowledge on how working capital is deployed, and help drive factory productivity. I’m very excited because this gives small, medium manufacturing an edge.”

Advaithi is not alone in advocating the benefits of AI. A research article in the December issue of Textile Engineering and Fashion Technology, lists more than a dozen ways artificial intelligence can be utilized to enhance productivity and resilience in the textile industry, including technologies ranging from predictive maintenance to demand forecasting to enhanced quality control. Summarizing the role of AI, the report highlights its ability to “to extract information on all possible deviations that may be associated with negative implications.” In real-time no less!

“AI is a tidal wave that is coming and absolutely going to have a big impact,” comments Sam Ward, who has a background in technology and was recently awarded a new certification: Designing and Building AI Products and Services from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). “AI isn’t as visible in the textile industry yet. But across the board in business and industry, AI is already starting to have a major impact. It will continue to scale as tech improves and people become more confident in AI and see the benefits,” explains Ward.

He points out that whether conscious of it or not, we are already interacting with AI systems. Transcription services are one example, another is generated images used for product marketing purposes. Realizing these advances as now mainstream, will create opportunities closer to home. Like materials innovation and future-proofing complex textile supply chains.

Asked to provide examples off the top of his head for AI use in the textile industry, Ward suggested companies using satellite imagery to analyze the health of a cotton crop located half a world away compared to the past three seasons. Or in a factory setting, how AI can monitor the health of machines, allowing for more timely maintenance to mitigate problems that would disrupt productivity.

Experiencing AI firsthand is already happening on the industry trade show circuit. The Coterie trade fair held at the Javits Center in New York City in February featured the AI Technology Lounge By Coterie, in partnership with Arcadia Earth. Situated in a busy section of the convention hall, the AI Lounge showcased artificial intelligence and augmented reality to highlight how machine learning and virtual experiences can reshape fashion by improving performance and productivity to lower costs while at the same time support sustainability goals by reducing pollution and relying on fewer resources. The Lounge consisted of a variety of small  installations that presented technologies for virtual try-on and design, automation in textile manufacturing, customer service, among others.  

Arcadia Earth founder, Valentino Vettori, stated, “No doubt AI has as we all know has, will and will continue to have, a large impact on businesses, and our intention along with Coterie is to bring this innovation not only to buyers, retailers and designers but to everyone who wants to understand what’s the next thing coming.”  

Small Steps Toward a Big Impact

Despite a surge in advancements, an array of confirmed benefits and considerable buzz, AI has not won over the textile community. Having reached out to 15 execs in the functional fabric sector to take the temperature of AI usage, the response was mostly tepid. Some firms responded having zero involvement with AI, while others expressed tiptoeing into AI utilization primarily via creative pursuits, sidestepping supply chain purposes completely.

YKK was the exception. The company has been using the technology for a while in some of its most advanced production equipment,  
according to Brian La Plante, senior manager sustainability, YKK. “We are now exploring its application in the area of production efficiency, and for use in marketing content creation. AI is also being deployed in one of our products directly through an application that consumers can interface with.”

When asked whether AI could potentially prevent a repeat of the Covid global supply chain crisis, La Plante, responded, “while the technology might have better foreseen the whipsaw effect on global supply chains it would have required many companies on both the demand side and the supply side to be running similar AI programs to smooth out the demand spike. Because of the opaqueness of the textile value chain, its decentralization, and reliance on subcontractors I’m not sure how even the best trained AI program could have processed the ever-changing variables. How does a program determine that the city of Shanghai is going to be locked down for two months and which businesses can operate which ones can’t? To top that, what do you use to train the AI model? While you can certainly use data from the recent Covid crisis, who knows how relevant that will be for the next unknown crisis?”

Where La Plante does see AI playing a role is in brand side demand forecasting and order placement. “This is an area where a well-trained AI might have been able to see the overproduction of product earlier and cut off orders in time to prevent an overstock of products.”

It’s still early days of AI adoption by textile suppliers and how the technology is used ultimately may differ, but one thing advocates like La Plante, Ward and Advaithi agree on, is that AI is going to have a big impact on the textile supply chain. n