Just-Style: Sportswear Firms Debate Digitalisation and Disruption
Faced with a paradigm shift in everything from the way products are sold to the tools and technologies that make them, sporting goods brands, retailers and manufacturers are still trying to work out the best way to navigate this rapidly-changing landscape.
Redesigning the apparel supply chain
One company whose vision is moving closer to reality is SoftWear Automation. Its ‘Sewbot’ driven worklines and workcells are designed to bring manufacturing closer to the consumer – what chairman and CEO Rajan Palaniswamy calls ‘SewLocal’ – reducing production cycles from 12 weeks to just a few days. Its first fully automated T-shirt line is set to go into production in the US in 2019.
“You want shorter lead-times, you want zero inventory – but your supply chain is not geared for this.”
The need for agility is being fueled by e-commerce, which is “crushing your supply chain,” Palaniswamy told delegates. “That’s because you want shorter lead-times, you want zero inventory – but your supply chain is not geared for this.”
Instead, the reality is that in 200 years, lead times have got longer, thanks to offshoring for cheaper costs. And “automating Asia” will not shorten lead times in the West “because you’ve still got to ship it across the world.”
SoftWear Automation’s patented technology tackles the cost issue by automating the sewing operation, and means the most labour-intensive part of the production process can now sit near US cotton farms, mills and retailers in North America. “Some folks are actually planning to have this in the same city where they can deliver on the same day,” Palaniswamy says.
The company is focusing on T-shirts because consumers buy 11.5bn worldwide each year and in the US, the product’s largest market, 97% of T-shirts sold are imported. The digital T-shirt workline has the potential to produce a T-shirt every 26 seconds using a combination of Sewbots, SewTables and Budgers to move and manipulate the fabric and garment pieces, with one operator carrying out the work currently done by 10 in a traditional production line.
A 60% increase in output is claimed, as is a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions per T-shirt. It also supports the zero inventory goal by enabling a manufacturer to start making a finished product only when an order is received.
“To be truly uncrushable you need a balanced supply chain catering to your different customer needs,” Palaniswamy explains, adding: “It’s not all local or all global: you need both. You’re still going to have a lot of business that still operates the traditional way.”
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