Keeping Automation at the Heart of Apparel Manufacturing for Faster Time to Market (and Other Great Benefits!)

Fashion has drastically changed. As industry insiders, we’re all keenly aware of the effect that the rise of apparel retailers like Zara have had on the fashion marketplace. They’re able to get fresh-off-the-runway fashion into their stores in just weeks with incredible speed to market. They’ve become masters of the “see-now-buy-now” sales model.

The fast fashion model is taking over the industry

Consumers now demand runway styles the minute models step off the runways. As a result, time to market is becoming essential for survival.

The problem: when you depend on an offshore supply chain for everything from fabrics to labor, it’s hard to keep up with the Zaras of the world. Shipping clothing in from Asian manufacturers doesn’t exactly lend itself to getting those items on the floor at lightning speed.

There is a way to speed things up and it’s by producing your merchandise in the same place you sell. That’s what Zara does in Spain. In-shoring is an important ingredient in their time-to-market strategy that so far, has spelled success.

But how to deal with cost implications and production problems that arise when you start in-shoring?

Until recently, there hasn’t been any real solution that would make insourcing functionally viable here in the United States. Zara is able to make in-shoring work because, although they hire local seamstresses that cost more than outsourced labor, they spend less in other areas. For instance, it’s widely known that they budget very little for advertising. With our competitive markets, distracted consumers, and fad-of-the-day-driven communications, apparel brands have to consider in-shoring. But, how do we make in-shoring a reality while keeping costs in check?

Automation is emerging as a solution for a growing number of home-based apparel manufacturers right here in the USA. This an exciting development and many in the industry are rightly thrilled. Automation not only helps shorten the production cycle but also helps achieve cost and sustainability goals.

But what has changed? Why was automation not viable earlier?

Automation has not been a viable solution for apparel manufacturing until very recently.

Technology-driven automation has touched many industries but so far has had made few inroads with apparel manufacturing. Why? The primary challenge is sewing.

  • Sewing is complex. A finished piece requires many different processes (cutting, buttons, moving fabric around, pockets etc.).
  • Stitching two pieces of fabric together is especially challenging for machines because it’s hard to keep the fabric from buckling and slipping.
  • There haven’t been IoT solutions that track the movement of items on the shop floor. No real time data means reduced ability to improve efficiencies.

These tasks have traditionally called for more human judgment and a nuanced application of skills. This is why sewing has always been labor-intensive.

Automation in the apparel industry is finally growing up

The exciting news is that robotics technology is maturing fast. And for any apparel manufacturing company that wishes it could shift production closer to home, this is happening at a great time. Automation could well bring about the conditions that would make insourcing functionally and financially viable for apparel manufacturers within the USA. Let’s take a quick peek at how robotics has developed and how the impact may play out in the apparel industry.

This new generation of robots was born out of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant whose goal was specifically to automate sewing. You may wonder why the US government wants robots that sew…

Well, clearly the U.S. Military must give preference to Made in USA suppliers. We applaud that but the fact is, there’s a dwindling supply of sewing talent in this country. That’s why the R&D wing of the Dept. of Defense sponsored a $1.3 million research contract to find someone who would invent a robot that could sew.

The contract was won by SoftWear Automation and they have given us “Sewbots”. Here’s how these new robotics work:

  • High-speed photography feeds images of the fabric being sewn to a computer. This drives decisions that allow precision sewing.
  • Robotics can adjust the fabric to feed it through a sewing machine just like a human would.
  • A materials handling system uses vacuum suction to move pieces of fabric around along the production lines.

The sewbots are still early stage and not directly applicable across most apparel categories. Since the future of fashion is about staying nimble and releasing new styles, and relatively smaller batches, the sewbots may hence not be a worthwhile investment for most, at least not yet, for that kind of supply chain. For such supply chains, it would behoove brands and made in USA manufacturers to automate operations versus entire production lines.

A combination of the below would allow all brands to have an industry leading automation strategy

  • Best in class machines that optimize efficiency per operation,
  • Setting up hyper-efficient production flows,
  • Training sewers on advanced sewing machines,
  • Automating high labor jobs like cleaning and packaging,
  • Building in new apparel-focused leading IoT systems that can track shop floor movement and thereby, manage and improve production efficiencies and lower costs,
  • Working with made in USA supply chain partners that understand how to incorporate automation in phases.

Time to market is one way automation solves problems for apparel manufacturers and brands.

Automation can do much more for apparel manufacturers and brands beyond improving their time to market. There are at least three other reasons for garment manufacturers and companies to consider automation.

It helps with branding in a big way.

“Made in the USA” is on consumers’ minds now more than ever. Automation gives these clothing brands the option to elevate themselves. The modern, “Proudly made in the USA” story helps their brand rise above the troubling images of Third-World sweatshops that plague many brands in the space.

Automation can also help solve cost issues.

Take Nike’s Flyknit sneaker. Nike has joined with Fitbit maker Flex to put robotics to work on shoe-making. The Flyknit sneaker uses robots that knit the upper portion of the shoe.

The Financial Times estimates that Nike stands to make significant potential savings with automation. As they see it, the company will enjoy a dramatic increase in profits should they continue to pursue this avenue of production.

Automation also helps with showcasing the brand’s purpose and wider consciousness.

Here’s how: Millennials & Gen Z’s are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of the textile industry with 73% of Millennials willing to pay more for brands that value sustainability within their supply chain. In that context, it’s widely believed that the entire lifecycle of apparel could do with a smaller ecological footprint. This is driving consumer demand for change in the apparel industry.

Automation helps eliminate waste in the cutting processes because computers are able to optimize layout and cutting techniques. Automation shortens the production life cycle of the garment and makes it more predictable. This means that items can be ordered in smaller batches and with faster turnaround times. This means better utilization of the resources, less waste, and reduced consumption. This helps brands and retailers demonstrate their commitment to building a sustainable future.

The final word: it’s an exciting time to be thinking of insourcing if you’re in the apparel industry in the USA. The technologies exist and have been proven to work. Forward-thinking brands have also already taken the plunge. It’s time for you to jump in too!


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