The digital pieces of the fashion supply chain puzzle are starting to come together, according to executives at the recent Texprocess apparel technology trade show in Frankfurt, Germany. And they advise that not only does digitalisation have the potential to provide agile support for existing products and reduce time to market for new ones – but that now is the time to start planning to make digital part of your strategy.
“Get committed, get started, or get left behind,” is the advice from Karsten Newbury, vice president and general manager of software solutions for apparel software and systems supplier Gerber Technology, when it comes to digitalising the apparel industry and its supply chain.
“It’s a very big topic for any company undertaking this journey, but it is coming, it is disrupting this industry. So you need to make sure you understand your strategy and how digital can help you take it to the next level. Start doing it now.”
Digitalisation – the process of extracting, capturing and analysing data – so-called ‘Big Data’ – is not new. But its uptake in the apparel industry is being accelerated by the cloud, mobile, augmented reality and artificial intelligence, and by consumers who increasingly expect better value, instant experience, and immediate fulfilment.
“We’re talking about fundamental change, where you can automate the entire supply chain,” Newbury said during a seminar at the Texprocess technology trade fair in Frankfurt last month. “Technology is allowing new ways to present value to the customers, and that’s really what’s driving change.”
His colleague Peter Morrissey, Gerber’s senior vice president, global sales & service, agrees. “One of the things our customers are always asking is how to get my product to market more quickly, whether it’s from a design perspective, whether it’s from a manufacturing perspective, or whether it’s getting it to the end-consumer,” he said during a panel discussion at the event.
From design and development, through production to retail and the customer experience, the flow of digital data can help increase speed, agility and innovation in the way garments are designed, created and purchased – as well as opening up new opportunities for mass customisation and personalisation.
It is also at the core of Industry 4.0, where information combines with automation to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of an operation; and the Internet of Things (IoT), where all devices and technologies ultimately link to create a coherent and connected network of real-time data to enhance visibility, efficiency and responsiveness.
“I believe that what you’re going to see is almost every fundamental process in this industry becoming digital – and becoming virtual,” Asaf Landau, vice president and general manager at EFI Optitex, the provider of 2D CAD and 3D digital design and sampling solutions, told just-style on the sidelines of the event.
“This means business processes that involve multiple people, often in multiple departments, often in multiple geographies, will all become a lot more agile and creative in terms of being able to look at things collectively in real time and in a virtual environment: what if we change that fabric, what if we change this style, how is the cloth going to act.”
Add in the workflow and approval processes, and “the end-game is digitalising the entire lifecycle from trend analysis to concepts for collections, to collection planning all the way through product development and merchandising and wholesaling and marketing, to consumer engagement.
He adds: “In every other technology arena – PLM, supply chain management, ERP – the human interaction will be partially replaced with artificial intelligence,” such as making recommendations based on an analysis of point of sale data.
Executives agree the move towards digitalisation and Industry 4.0 in the global fashion industry is being driven by two main market pressures:
Fast fashion and the push for greater agility, availability, personalisation and customisation, and faster speed to market; and
The growing representation of fashion in e-commerce and consumer desire to purchase products when, where and how they choose.
“An underlying trend in all of this is that the way fashion products are delivered to the market is changing,” Newbury confirms. “We’re coming from a very planning-driven process…you plan a product, develop, design, make, source, deliver it…and in many cases it still takes months or over a year to go through that process.
“But this is changing; it’s now driven by the consumer. The buy step is really the first one, and in many cases it’s online.
“So there’s big pressure on the supply chain to drive down that time to market, but to still have quality product in a very short amount of time. This also has implications for the buying, the planning and all the steps in the chain. And the only way to bring this process down to days if not hours is by using digital information; by connecting the process in a digital way.”
Not surprisingly, understanding digitalisation and trying to work out where it fits within a company can be a daunting process.
“It begins with figuring out the basics,” Newbury advises. “You have to understand your business model and how you want to differentiate in the marketplace.
“Are you mass-producing T-shirts at a very low cost, or are you doing high end men’s suits? If you’re a manufacturer in China, are you going to stay a mass manufacturer for brands outside of China, or are you going to get more into the local market and become a local or global brand?
“Then you take that strategy, re-imagine how you can do it and deliver a new experience with digital information, and build the infrastructure in a forward-thinking way to go execute on that.
“If you’re a shirt company you want to think about what value you create for your customers, and how you use these digital technologies to create value. And then think about how you build an infrastructure that is agile, so using things like cloud computing or relying on standard technologies that you know will be around much longer or at least are upgradable.”
The next step is connecting processes with information.
“For process integration, you need to start by mapping out your process, what you are making yourself, where you are using partners, and what are the big value-add areas. It’s too much to bite off everything at the same time; you really want to pick an area that helps you get started now, and then create some real value for your customers and then go from there.”
Another key is building an agile infrastructure.
“You can integrate a process, but if it’s not flexible you have a big problem because the markets change very quickly, so you need to be able to adapt. So how you build your infrastructure is incredibly important. To have an agile infrastructure, the data will be in the cloud. The cloud makes the technology easy to consume, to adopt technology, to be on the latest versions, and to take part in that rapid innovation and keep you competitive.”
Once the processes are connected, analytics come into play. “You can use the information proactively and apply things like machine learning and analytics to provide more automation of the information itself.”
The adoption of 3D design and prototyping tools is perhaps the area where it is easiest to see the competitive advantage that comes from digitalisation, with its potential to speed the process from design sketch to style approval.
By digitalising all the styles in a collection virtually, “you can now get to the point of approval within 2-3 weeks of a design sketch instead of five months,” Laundau explains. “You can do alterations on the fly and have a lot of design freedom to see what that garment would look like one way or another rather than waiting every time for a prototype.”
Another benefit, of course, is that the sooner the fabrics have been decided, “you can communicate this to the supply chain much earlier….which can really open up the bottleneck for the producer.
“It’s about making better product and having more design freedom; it’s about lowering costs as well.”
Gerber’s solutions, including its YuniquePLM product lifecycle management software and AccuMark pattern design, grading, marker making and production planning tools, use common file structures so that data – such as a tech pack – can be sent digitally to the cutting room where the company’s ‘smart’ spreaders and cutters process the order with a simple barcode scan.
On top of this, the equipment is also embedded with sensors so information about the status of the product, what’s been cut, and what quality, can be fed into cloud-based portals to provide details about production.
“This can help you be more productive, but also allows things like proactive service maintenance to reduce downtime,” Newbury explains. And going forward, “it puts you in a position to have the machines talk to other parts of the process chain all the way potentially to the consumer: ‘this personalised suit is being produced now and you will have it next morning because it’s about to be shipped’.”
Likewise, Lectra has it sights firmly set on Industry 4.0, with the capacity to combine machine software and services, and integrate of all the processes starting from a design. Cutting Room 4.0 its first focus, with the company’s vision of a complete workflow for cutting operations that offers a 360-degree view of the whole process so data flows not only to the equipment but also connects to ERP, MES and CRM systems, and can be customised for different end-users.
Industry 4.0 is disrupting the value chain,” explains Philippe Ribera, Lectra’s vice president for innovation. “It’s a way to switch from mass production business to a mass customised business model, and this is going to change everything in the way you organise your factory to how you take your order.”
Digitalisation is also cropping up in other areas too, with many exhibitors at Texprocess showing new tools that enable data to flow seamlessly from digital design and development all the way through the supply chain.
With sewing one of the biggest bottlenecks – accounting for up to 70% of the time taken to produce a garment – software provider CGS has developed new tools that gather real-time data from sewing operators, which can then be used for line balancing and production flow. It has also integrated its BlueCherry Shop Floor Control (SFC) solution with Juki sewing machines to analyse production down to the needle, providing insights into productivity and performance, and helping to increase overall efficiency and flexibility on the manufacturing floor.
Looking into the not-too-distant future, other steps to integrate sewing in a digital process are set to include robotic worklines capable of automating the complete garment production process.
Georgia Tech spin-off Softwear Automation already has a number of digital lines in commercial operation for simple homegoods like bathmats, towels and pillows, and is working towards a complete T-shirt workline by the end of next next year.
“This will go from cut pieces into a sewing line and out the other end will come a finished T-shirt,” explains vice president Peter Santora.
“We picked T-shirts because everyone wears T-shirts, but 97% of all T-shirts made are exported…that means they are made somewhere they are not consumed. The US in particular is the third-largest producer of cotton, it has the cheapest cotton in the world, it is the highest quality cotton in the world…and yet we make no T-shirts.
“So for us T-shirts are this linchpin product that shows how unsustainable the supply chain is and how, when you have all these goods in an area, why aren’t they being consumed and then made into a product?”
Instead of the traditional sourcing model driven by the need for cheap labour, “the input of automation, of robotics into apparel manufacturing, allows us to change this model to come closer to the customer, to come closer to the supply chain, be more vertically integrated and then find cost reduction there,” Santora adds.
While the fashion supply chain may be on the verge of a digital technology revolution, another question that crops up repeatedly is whether or not education and training are keeping pace with the industry’s future skills needs.
“You need to have the business expertise to implement the processes you’re going to automate,” emphasises Lectra’s Ribera. “You need to have the industry know-how. And you need to cover the full scope from design to manufacturing…Industry 4.0 is not only manufacturing, it starts from a design point of view, so your creative guys are part of this process. So think how complex it’s going to be to integrate all of that.”
He continues: “We need to reinvest in university education, and even basic skills like pattern design. Artificial intelligence (AI) is not going to explain how to fit a jacket. It’s going to bring me everything in the database to help me set up or go faster – but you need to have the know-how. It will never replace a designer or a pattern designer.”
He also makes the point that digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and greater automation all mean “we are also going to need people who are more qualified than the people we have now, because it’s going to be more and more complex to handle this type of technology. You need to train your people and you need to train them today.”
Prof Dr-Ing Dipl-Ing Michael Ernst, head of the VirLab – Virtual Laboratory – and holder of the chair for textile product development at Niederrhein University in Mönchengladbach, Germany, agrees. “It’s a big challenge for us to educate the stewards of tomorrow, but for me the digital process starts with the design process and goes through manufacturing and ends up with the product, so it’s the complete process. At the end of the day I need a product, so we shouldn’t forget this.”
He also points out that companies appear to be waiting for the best technology solution to come onto the market: “But you should start implementing these things now instead of waiting.”
Optitex’s Landau concurs: “This is just the beginning of the digital impact on the industry, and we really see it as inevitable. Everybody will be on 3D, everybody will have virtualised and digitalised processes between the different portions of their eco-systems. Some are getting ahead, some are joining on now, and some are waiting and seeing. The consequences are simple: making better products, faster; and making better decisions for their businesses, earlier.?”
The final piece of advice comes from Gerber’s Newbury. “My main message is that now is the time to really start with this, because the technology is going to keep changing, so if you’re waiting for perfect you’re going to be done. By the time it’s perfect, others will have figured it out and your company will not exist anymore.”
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