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

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How to Save “Made in NYC”: Sewing Skill or New Technology?

The video is a recorded panel discussion hosted by the Texworld USA in July 2015 on the topic of apparel “Made in NYC”. Most panelists have years of experiences working in NYC as a fashion designer, including:

  • Eric Johnson, Director, Fashion & Arts Teams Center for Economic Transformation, NYC Economic Development Corporation
  • Erin Kent, Manager of Programs at The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)
  • Michelle Feinberg, NY Embroidery Studio
  • (The event was moderated by Arthur Friedman, Senior Editor, Textiles and Trade, WWD)

According to the panelists:

  • “Made in NYC” have a bright future in two niche markets: sample production for fashion designers and high-quality craftsmanship clothing. As one panelist put it “Designer needs to have tangible garment to show to the buyer”. However, there is no mention about “Made in NYC” serving the mass market in the discussion.
  • Two factors are regarded as critical to the survival of “Made in NYC”: training more professions with sewing skills and investing/upgrading equipment and technologies.
  • In support of the development of the local apparel manufacturing sector, several initiatives funded by the city government and private sources have been launched, including NYC Fashion Production Fund (provide financial support to young fashion designers), Fashion Manufacturing Initiative (support purchasing equipment and skill training) and Design Entrepreneurs NYC (equip fashion designers with the skills they need to successfully run a fashion label, including marketing, operations, and financial management).

However, the future of “Made in NYC” is not without major challenges:

  • One panelist lament that “fashion schools do not teach students much on how to make things”. However, another truth is college students today face a high opportunity cost of spending times on practicing sewing skills. This is particularly the case when most fashion jobs available for college graduates in the U.S. are business or merchandising focused. The constant upgrading of technology and manufacturing equipment in the fashion industry further raise the question as to whether learning traditional sewing skills is a worthwhile investment.
  • The brand image of “Made in NYC” overall is still less prestigious than “Made in Italy” and “Made in France” in the eyes of consumers.
  • Fashion designers in NCY heavily rely on imported fabrics (including those imported from Europe) today. Some questions can be asked: what is the meaning of clothing “Made in NYC” in the 21st century global economy? Should NCY promote the development of local textile manufacturing? If so, how to make it happen? Or should fashion designers in NCY support lower tariff rate and removal of trade barriers on imported fabrics?

Background (adapted from the New York City Economic Development Corporation)

New York City’s fashion industry employs 180,000 people, accounting for 6% of the city’s workforce and generating $10.9 billion in total wages, with tax revenues of $2 billion. An estimated 900 fashion companies are headquartered in the city, and in 2012, there were 13,800 fashion establishments here. Home to more than 75 major fashion trade shows plus thousands of showrooms, New York City attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The Changing Business Model of Fashion Companies

From watching the video (the first 18 minutes):

  • What are the key challenges faced by fashion companies nowadays?
  • How has the business model of fashion companies evolved?
  • What’s your outlook for the U.S. fashion industry?

Apparel Industry is Not All about Labor Cost

While most discussions on improving corporate social responsibility practices in the apparel industry still focus on conventional solutions like higher labor standards and more effective monitoring programs, a recent Boston Consulting Group report suggests supply chain innovation also has its role to play.

One key argument of the report is: Although cost still matters in apparel sourcing, lower-cost can be achieved through means other than seeking cheap labor. For example:

1

Engendering end-to-end supply chain efficiency through managing raw materials. Apparel companies may work with their suppliers further down the supply chain to optimize fabric selection, which usually account for as much as 60-70 percent of the total cost of a finished garment (v.s. 30-40 percent of labor cost). Some apparel companies have started to use fewer yarns and weight classes so as to reduce fabric count and lower down sourcing cost. Some other companies are realizing significant cost reduction by timing orders so as to level the load over the course of the year. [Note: looks like Uniqlo’s model]

2

Building an integrated supply chain. As cited in the report, to balance sourcing cost and speed to market, one major apparel retailer builds 15 to 20 percent of the season’s styles and pre-positions about two-thirds of its raw material before the season (both in-house and from production partners). During the season, the company analyzes sales, staying in constant communication with its stores and with the design team. It resupplies items that are selling well through accelerated production and delivery, usually within three to four days. Designers then create new styles by adapting the best sellers using the pre-positioned material. [Note: looks like Zara’s model]

Innovating ways of production. The report suggests that bonding and gluing technologies (i.e. use bonded adhesive films and processes such as ultrasonic heating and high-frequency radiation to fuse together layers of fabric) can produce an entire small garment in 30 to 40 percent less time than conventional cut-and-sew. Digital technologies such as digital prototyping of textile designs can also significantly help apparel makers reduce waste and boost efficiency in pattern making. The potential application of 3D printing may further allow apparel makers to produce smaller batches, and possibly even allow for made-to-order production of individually designed and sized garments. This would not only allow companies to match the market’s growing need for speed, but also reduce the costs of retail inventory surpluses and associated price reductions.

Two additional thinking based on the report:

First, much attention has been given to the changing business environment of the apparel industry, such as rising labor cost in Asia, shifting market growth towards emerging economies and more sophisticated consumers’ demand in the era of omni-channel retailing. But what if the nature of the apparel industry is also changing: if one day labor cost is no longer a key factor in deciding where to produce and apparel production itself is no longer labor-intensive at all? Although automation of apparel production was not achieved in the 20st century, it may not be something totally impossible in the 21st century. We need to have bold thinking here.

Second, while the apparel industry is innovating its business model (i.e. the way to produce, the way to deliver products and the way to serve its customers), T&A educational programs also need to embrace innovative thinking. For example: are traditional course offerings sufficient enough (or still relevant) to prepare students’ job readiness in the 21st century? How to proactively respond to the changing nature of the apparel industry which has started to adopt more and more new technologies? What if we redefine the meaning of “T&A” majors and redesign the model of preparing the workforce for the apparel industry? (just like the question: for wearable technology, shall IT companies make apparel or apparel companies make IT products?)