If you want to understand the present, look to the past. All the talk right now in apparel supply chains is of new technology, automation and robots potentially replacing humans. We read constantly about how customisation is the future—that consumers want to go online and bespoke their clothing to their own specific requirements. “Personalisation” is the name of the game. Surely it is far better to have personalised products than mass customisation, right? Perhaps so, provided that you are prepared to pay for it, but who is? How many people do we see wearing personalised apparel products?
We also hear talk of 3D sampling. Some claim that textile manufacturers which can’t provide 3D samples face an uncertain future. Really? I’d be more inclined to believe such rhetoric if I hadn’t been hearing people say the same thing for several years. Surely it can be no coincidence that the people making such claims also happen to be those who have the most to gain from such technology gaining traction—including the manufacturers themselves or the consultants trying to sell this technology.
What about the micro-factory? This concept has been in evidence at several textile exhibitions in the past two years, and there is no doubt it is an interesting idea. A glimpse into the future, perhaps, but there are no guarantees at all that such a future will ever arrive. In theory, the micro-factory turns the traditional textile model on its head, switching from the existing paradigm of “produce-deliver-sell” to “sell-produce-deliver”. The system is driven by developments in digital technology, online workflow, laser cutting and digital textile printing.
With production and delivery after the sale, this means that production is essentially demand-led: you only sell what you produce, which is surely better for cash flow, right?
If only it were all this simple, however. Where does such a model fit with the cash flow of a factory in Bangladesh producing millions of units per month? Are such factories going to disappear overnight? Who will take up the slack of this lost production?
We need to remember that global apparel supply chains have, fundamentally, changed very little over the past few years. This is a conservative industry and, let’s not forget, an industry of tight margins.
Recently, I was at a textile conference in Switzerland. “How many people in the audience are wearing customised clothing?”—a speaker asked the 120-strong audience. Seven people in the room stood up. I am pretty confident that the answer to this question will be similar next year, and the year after. Change will not happen overnight in apparel production, it will be incremental, and many of the fundamentals will remain the same.
Take 3D sampling, for instance. How widespread is this in the apparel industry? I know of very few who use it, and I also recognise why it has not really captured the imagination of buyers. People still like to feel and touch fabrics, which is why trade fairs around the world are actually busier than ever, and the number of textile exhibitions is increasing all the time. Perhaps this is not a good thing as far as the environment is concerned—all those people flying around the world—but it is a fact that textiles and apparel remain a tactile industry, where people like to touch and feel before placing large orders.
And yet, talk of technology, automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and other such phrases creates fear among suppliers. They worry they will be left behind, and that automaton will lead to job losses at factories. Workers themselves worry about “sewbots” replacing people. They worry one machine might be able to do the job of five people.
We have to remember that apparel manufacture is not a high-tech industry. This is not car manufacture or silicone chip production, where the economics of automation stack up. This is the production of low-value items which are sold on for tiny margins.
Also consider the fact that automation technology of varying guises has been around for years in the garment industry. Why is it taking so long for the manufacturers to use it? Perhaps it is because labour is so cheap in this industry, certainly in Southeast Asia. Labour costs are not the burden for manufacturers in garment supply chains that they are in other industries.
It’s interesting that such worries have been around for hundreds of years in the textile industry. In English-speaking countries, the word “Luddite” is used as an insult, to describe somebody who has failed to keep up with progress. Yet the term has its origins in the textile industry. In the 19th-century England, the Luddites were a radical, secret oath-based organisation of English textile workers who destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest!
The group was protesting against the use of machinery and they feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry.
It’s amazing that all these years later, we are having the same discussions now. Were the fears of the Luddites realised? Their fears were greatly exaggerated and often misplaced, as they are now.
We have to remember that apparel supply chains have to run before they can walk. Yes, we need to increase productivity and always be thinking about modernisation. But we also need to get the basics right. Many factories still struggle to even pay basic salaries or have poor factory set-up which leads to huge inefficiencies and a lack of optimisation. They can forget about automation on any kind of serious scale until they sort out such issues.
Consider, also, the cost of automation and other technology solutions such as ERP (Enterprises Resources Planning) which we hear so much about. How much do these systems cost to design and implement (remembering that such technology needs to be tailor-made for individual factories)? The costs here can run into several millions of dollars.
The number of suppliers who can afford to invest this kind of money is limited, especially when the benefits for doing so are not entirely proven or clear.
When I think about the use of technology in apparel supply chains, what I do see is a lot of prototypes or pilots. Many are trialling different types of technology for one-off or short batches. But this has always been the case. Factories will always experiment with new ways of doing things, especially when there is little or no risk involved. Translating these efforts into a commercial basis is entirely different. Many of the technologies being trialled may never actually see the light of day on a commercial basis.
I realise there is a danger of sounding like the Luddites I mentioned before, but that is not the case. Actually, there is an area where the use of technology and investments in new systems is actually happening. I could use the word “sustainability” here but I prefer the word “efficiency” for I feel these are actually two sides of the same coin. There are small steps which suppliers can take—and are taking—which help them to save money in terms of reducing water use, reducing electricity use, shifting to more modern boilers, and so on. New technologies in these areas are often relatively inexpensive and the pay-off for suppliers in terms of return on investment can often be in just 12 to 18 months.
Investment in these areas is a low-hanging fruit for textile suppliers. It makes financial sense and the benefits are there to see. It is also worth remembering that there are often grants and other financial inducements available to support these investments, which provide another incentive.
But investments in the garment “factory of the future” that we hear so much about are a different thing entirely.
Too many factory owners still need to get the basics right and take the low-hanging fruit on offer; to make better, more efficient use of their existing capital outlays. They also need to keep in mind that the best technology will only ever be as good as the person who operates it. Good technology is one thing; having the people in place who are trained and educated to operate it effectively, to maximise its potential, is something else entirely.
If we were to have a technology revolution, this would have to go hand in hand with a training and education revolution. This would require wholesale change in garment supply chains such as Bangladesh. The industry is a long, long way from such a scenario.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.