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.

What Might Apparel Sourcing in the 3D-Printing Era Look Like?

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(photo credit: WGSN)

Wearing 3D-printed apparel is no longer a dream (see the pictures above)! But what is the implication of 3D-printing technology on apparel sourcing? Here is my personal vision:

First, 3D printing may create brand new T&A supply chains and business models. 1) Because 3D printing is highly technology and capital intensive with little input from low-skilled labor, it implies that developed countries rather than developing countries may enjoy the comparative advantage in manufacturing 3D-printed apparel. 2) Because apparel will be directly printed by machines, cross-the-border transportation can be largely reduced in the 3D printing era, generating potential cost-saving opportunities both for manufacturers and consumers. 3) 3D printing will empower consumers to more directly involve in the product development process. Yet given consumers’ limited technical knowledge and equipment, many new types of customer services ranging from design assistance to on-site apparel printing may emerge in the 3D printing era.

Second, 3D printing may result in a more sustainable T&A supply chain. 1) Because 3D printing is digital-based, it may help reduce waste during the product development process. 2) Because 3D printing is highly customized and can produce on-demand, it may result in less overproduction in the textile and apparel (T&A) industry. 3) 3D printing has the potential to be made by recycled material. 3D printed apparel itself may be recycled as well, resulting in almost zero carbon emission in the whole product life-cycle.

However, 3D printing my create new challenges for apparel sourcing. 1) When 3D printed apparel substitute traditionally-made apparel among ordinary consumers, demand for apparel sewing workers will be substantially reduced. Millions of unskilled or low-skilled workers currently employed in the T&A sector may have to find new jobs. 2) Workforce in the T&A industry may have to substantially update their knowledge structure in the 3D printing era. The T&A industry may even be short of talents for certain positions such as 3D printing designers and engineers. 3) The application of 3D printing will require an update of the current legal system to better address issues such as intellectual property right protection, consumer privacy protection and data security in a digital-based context.

What is your vision for the future of apparel sourcing in the 3D-printing era?

Sheng Lu

The Next Black – A film about the Future of Clothing

 

‘The Next Black’ is a documentary film that explores the future of clothing. Watch as we meet with some of the most innovative companies on the planet to get their opinion on clothing and its future, including: heroes of sustainability, Patagonia; tech-clothing giants, Studio XO; sportswear icon, adidas; and Biocouture, a consultancy exploring living organisms to grow clothing and accessories.

3D Printing and the Future of the Fashion Industry

How do you think 3D printing might shape the future landscape of the fashion industry (eg: impact on consumers’ shopping behavior, structure of the supply chain, demand for talents and fashion companies’ business models?)

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3D Printing as a Game Changer for the Global Textile and Apparel Industry

 

3D printing is an emerging and transformative technology that adopts a fundamentally new approach of “additive manufacturing” to make things. Textile and apparel (T&A) is one major area in which the 3D printing technology is believed can have a wide application.  Companies such as N12 and a few designer-researchers have started the pioneering work of using printer to directly print wearable apparel for consumers.