The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors


The video echoes one recent Wall Street Journal article about Levi Strauss using automation technologies to revamp their apparel production in China:

“In an apparel factory in Zhongshan, a gritty city of three million stuffed with industrial parks across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, lasers are replacing dozens of workers who scrub Levi’s blue jeans with sandpaper to give them the worn look that American consumers find stylish. Automated sewing machines have cut the number of seamstresses needed to stitch arc designs into back pockets. Digital printers make intricate patterns on jeans that workers used to do with a mesh screen.”

One important factor that gives a push to adopting robots in China’s factory floor is the end of very cheap labor in China. China’s wage level has been rising in double-digit percentages for the past decades. And as a consequence of its “one-child policy”, by 2050, the working-age population in China could decline by 212 million according to estimation from the United Nations.

But Levi executives say they have largely abandoned a strategy of relocating production to one impoverished country after another, known as “chasing the needle,” in favor of other forms of cost-cutting.” “Labor is getting more expensive and technology is getting cheaper,” says Andrew Lo, chief executive of Crystal Group, one of Levi’s major suppliers in China.

“Levi is adapting its laser technology so it can etch different patterns to make one type of denim look like another, reducing costs by buying less fabric. For a new line of women’s wear, Levi said it needed only 12 fabrics, rather than 18. In the past three years, Levi said, it cut the number of its suppliers by 40% and the number of fabrics by 50%.”

“The changes also give Levi greater flexibility, said Ms. O’Neill, the 44-year-old executive who helps oversee the company’s supply chain. If a pair of jeans using a particular fabric is selling well, she says, Levi can use lasers to produce more of the desired look, and pare back designs that are losers. “The idea is to delay decision-making for as long as possible,” said Ms. O’Neill.”

And this is only the beginning! Some technologists think that inventions such as 3-D printing—essentially printers that replicate solid objects like copiers reproduce printed pages—will have a big impact by 2050. In such a world, printers could spew out clothing, food, electronics and other goods ordered online from a nearly limitless selection, with far fewer workers involved in production.

“In 2050, you could potentially have a 3-D printer at home that could produce all the fabrics you want,” said Roger Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s TAL Group, which makes 1 of every 6 dress shirts sold in the U.S. for brands from Banana Republic to Brooks Brothers. “That would make us obsolete.”

Ironically but not surprisingly, automation also keeps wages down. Levi said it expects China production to rise only “modestly” next year; new orders are up for grabs. Apparel InternationaI’s president, Oscar Gonzalez, says the company now boasts an advantage over China—a large pool of apparel workers who were laid off in past downsizings. Excess labor has helped him keep wage increases to 2% or 3% a year he says. “Every Monday when we recruit,” he adds, “there are long lines of applicants.”

Welcome for any comments and discussion questions.

US Tariff Phaseout Schedule for Textile and Apparel in TPP by OTEXA Code

[This post is updated on July 1, 2016]

Please also read:TPP tariff phase-out can steer Vietnam sourcing plans

The United States includes as many as 38 different types of phaseout schedule in TPP and 8 of them apply to the textile and apparel (T&A) sector.

phaseout category

In general, T&A products with lower base tariff rate seem to be given more generous phaseout treatment than T&A that are subject to higher base tariff rate. For example, although T&A products under category EIF can immediately enjoy duty-free treatment once TPP takes into force, their base tariff rate is also the lowest (7.9% on average). In comparison, whereas T&A products under category US6, US7, US8 and US9 are subject to the highest base tariff rate, they are given the least generous tariff cut (i.e. 35%) once TPP takes into effect. This will makes average tariff rate applied to these products remain the highest almost throughout the whole phaseout period. It should be noted that even though US11 apparently seems to be the most restrictive phaseout category (i.e. 50% cut on day 1 and the resulting rate will remain unchanged until the end of year 12), its average tariff rate actually will be lower than phaseout category US6, US7, US8 and US9.

tariff

In the following table, the U.S. phaseout schedule for T&A in the released TPP text based on the 8-digit Harmonized System (HS) code is matched with the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) product category. Results show that products equivalent to around 37.5% of the value of U.S. textile and apparel imports from Vietnam in 2015 will enjoy immediate duty-free treatment once TPP takes into force (i.e. EIF), approximately 4% will be subject to medium-level protection (i.e. EIF+B5) and 58.6% are under high (i.e. EIF+ any of the followings: US6, US7, US8, US9, US10, US11) or very high level of protection (i.e. any of the followings: US6, US7, US8, US9, US10, US11).

phaseout by OTEXA code

phaseout by trade data

Note: “Level of protection” in the above table is defined as the following: 1) Low level of protection: EIF only; 2) Medium level of protection: EIF+B5; 3) High level of protection: EIF+any of the followings: US6, US7, US8, US9, US10, US11; 4) Very high level of protection: any of the followings: US6, US7, US8, US9, US10, US11 only.

Sheng Lu

 

Potential Impact of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) on Related Textile and Apparel Trade Flows

The presentation was delivered at the 2015 International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 13, 2015. Welcome for any suggestions and feedback.

Tariff Remains a Critical Trade Barrier Worldwide for the Textile and Apparel Sector

1

tariff rate

According to data from the World Trade Organization:

  1. In 2013, average applied tariff rate remained at 10.73% for textiles and 18.25% for apparel worldwide. Compared with the average tariff rate for all sectors, the rate for textiles on average is 1.4 percentage points higher and the rate for apparel is 8.9 percentage points higher. This implies that although tariff may not be a critical trade barrier for some sectors anymore, it still significantly matters for the textile and apparel sector.
  2. Least developed countries (LDC) overall set a higher tariff rate for textiles and apparel than the world average level. Ironically, many LDCs heavily rely on imports for textile supply. Should these LDCs lower their tariff rate for textiles, it may help apparel manufacturers there save sourcing cost for yarns and fabrics and improve the price competitiveness of finished apparel products.
  3. At the country level, countries with the highest tariff rate for textiles include Ethiopia (27.8%), Sudan (27.4%), Argentina (23.3%, Brazil (23.3%), Gabon (19.8%), Cameroon (19.6%), Chad (19.6%) and Congo (19.6%). And countries with the highest tariff rate for apparel include Zimbabwe (72.26%), South Africa (41.02%), Namibia (41.02%), Swaziland (41.02%), Botswana (41.02%), Lesotho (41.02%), Bolivia (40.0%), Sudan (40.0%), Argentina (35.0%), Ethiopia (35.0%) and Brazil (35.0%). Interesting enough, many of these countries are members of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which are eligible for the third country fabric provision.

Sheng Lu

The Future of Asia-Pacific and Implications for the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry

Asia Pacific

The following discussion questions are proposed by students enrolled in FASH455 (Global Apparel & Textile Trade and Sourcing) Fall 2015 after learning the unit on textile and apparel industry & market in the Asia-Pacific region. Please feel free to leave your comment and engage in our online discussion.

  1. We’ve heard so much about China’s superior involvement in the textile & apparel sectors globally, but how are these industries contributing to the local economy?
  2. As rules on working conditions and minimum wage have been enforced in Mainland China many business people have moved their operations to Southeast Asia, do you think the Southeast Asia will eventually become like mainland China forcing businessmen to seek low wages elsewhere?
  3. Will Vietnam shift its sourcing of yarns and fabrics from China to US after TPP? What are some setbacks associated with this? What are some potential opportunities?
  4. While Vietnam is currently one of the primary exporters of apparel to the United States, what should be the actions taken by the United States if they continue to “refuse” to cut out Chinese Textiles? Or, should the United States continue their trading patterns with Vietnam despite their reliance on Chinese Textiles?
  5. The Asia pacific region is made up of a variety of countries with different strengths and political infrastructure. How does the variety of policies and governments affect how we do business abroad, and is there a way to set standards that are not individualized to each country?
  6. China and the US can be seen as a threat to one another. However the president of China said the “Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries”. Do you think they are threats to each other, or are they ultimately helping each other’s economies grow?
  7. What will happen as more and more countries that used to produce apparel move into producing more capital intensive production?
  8. What are the advantages or disadvantages of excluding China from international trade agreements such as TPP?
  9. If the T&A industry in China is envisioned by policymakers as beginning to focus more on technical textiles, how will the textile industry in China compete with the industry in the United States?
  10. Why has East Asia become one of the most economically interconnected regions in the world?
  11. What are some of the reasons that China still remains one of most price competitive export markets in the World? Also, does China face challenges in losing their top spot as leader in price competitiveness? If so, what are some of the reasons they are in danger of competition?
  12. How is the discussion about yarn forward rules of origin different in regards to TPP countries than the same discussion between the NAFTA/CAFTA-DR countries?

 [Discussion for this post is closed].