Will Digital Development Take the Sector Full Circle?
David Reay- Chairman of the network, weighs in on the changing digital landscape of the fashion industry over the last few decades. David is an expert in global manufacturing and the supply chain.
My career in the fashion sector began many years ago as a trainee production engineer for Levi Strauss UK – which was, in those days, one of the best engineered production apparel companies in the world. I then spent almost two decades building my career and supplying Marks and Spencer in the days when it was ‘prime’ for the UK sector and world famous for its manufacturing and supply chain management.
The entire UK sector was all but wiped out when production moved out to low cost countries. I followed it, and so did many others, and set up factories, supply chains and sourcing streams worldwide. The challenges were enormous back then.
One of the fundamental principles in manufacturing is to simplify and make it easy to understand what the product is and how to assemble it in any location to an acceptable quality level. The logistical challenges alone to route raw materials, information and technical support to developing nations were tough enough, without the added challenges of culture, language, time zones and management training. The internet was very much in its infancy and extremely limited.
Digital development, alongside the expansion of the web, cut through so many of these problems. Advances in digital pattern making, lay planning, tension free spreading and auto-cutting gave the offshore sites stable shapes and a good starting point. Training operatives to sew and finish was greatly helped by this. And the rest, as they say, is history. Digitisation of PDM systems, progressing to ever more sophisticated PLM systems, tied the design and technical functions closer to each other and to the factories, and communications were fine tuned.
It seems now that the market is shifting.
Today, end users want added variations in styles, quicker responses, and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility. The days of high volume generic styling are drawing to a close and being limited largely to entry-level pricing and basic products. Brands and supply chains worldwide are adapting to this demand. However, the opportunities now arise for more homegrown production.
The challenges of higher wage rates are, to some degree, being offset by the attraction of fast turn, flexibility, and opportunity to chase fast trends and squeeze the last drops of profit. Many of the fastest growing UK brands and retailers are investing in local production and the volumes are increasing. This of course has its limitations but digital development is increasingly offering advantages and ways to support this. Lead times have been cut from months to days, 3D design offers on screen selling from avatars, and sales can be built before commitment to production volumes is made. Manufacturers now hold stocks of plain white fabric, and print colourways and patterns in hours, prior to cutting and sewing. Stocks of plain coloured fabrics are also held and the risk of slowing sales can be mitigated by a quick alteration to style and flowed through fast turn facilities in days.
Knitwear whole product 3D production is well developed already and is becoming more popular, particularly in Italy. 3D printing of product, already being pioneered by leaders in the ‘hard’ areas of shoes, accessories etc. are being developed into ‘soft’ areas such as dresses.
These developments are currently expensive and out of the reach of most but are likely to follow the pattern of PLM. Many of the heavyweight PLM systems are expensive. Disruptors are attacking the market now with entry-level modular systems for a fraction of the investment required and give growing small brands a fighting chance to compete and professionalise their companies. The larger companies will question their costs too in this respect.
Heading back into manufacturing, the big players in auto cutting have developed smaller, low-level cutting units to adapt the changes. T-shirt makers are proudly now displaying fully automatic robotic cut and sew facilities with huge labour savings. One of the ways this can work is the ability to pre-stiffen the fabric for ease of robotic handling and then the stiffening agent is removed by immersion into water.
These are early days and manufacturing of tailored and structured products, fine design and complex construction cannot yet be automated, but it is just a matter of time. Full automation usually means volume which flies against the current sales trends but there will be sewing machine technicians looking at refining aids and ways to de-skill and support increased output levels to sewing machinists in the same way that auto manufacturers are bridging the development of all-electric vehicles with hybrids.
The big exodus for production to off shore from the UK was around 20 years ago. We see signs of change emerging now, albeit in a limited capacity. What will the sector look like in 20 years from now? The major players will be working towards that today.