The evolution of the manufacturing process in the fashion Industry
The fashion industry is dynamic and has changed drastically throughout the last century. The production of apparel consumes energy, creates waste, and offers many options for consumers. The average consumer does not understand how their purchasing choices impact the planet. In this article, I discuss the fashion manufacturing industry through the years and how technology has played a key role in the heart of the value chain, the production of our garments.
The clothing industry is ancient and has been around ever since early humans started sewing by hand using needles made of animal bones or horns and thread made from animal sinew. Many years later, clothes were manufactured at home by women using raw materials after purchasing wool from farmers. Fibers were spun into yarn using spinning wheels, then woven into clothes using a handloom and finally, sold in local markets. However, the time it took to produce each garment led to the mechanization of the textile industry with the Industrial revolution.
To start with, The First Industrial Revolution began with the discovery of the steam engine in England in 1712, then in 1791, the first sewing machine was built by an English man: Thomas Saint. Then, The Second Industrial Revolution started in 1870 when electricity began to be used in the industrial field, the sewing machine began to be produced serially, the industry was focused on operation costs, so production increased to large-scale manufacturing, emerging new inventions like spinning mules and the power loom. These machines were used in dangerous conditions at work and by the cheap manual labor force. Later, The Third Industrial Revolution or Digital Revolution began with the use of the first programmable management system in 1969. It has started to be used in the industry and the transition from analog to digital technology by developing in software, fiber optic cables, and telecommunication domains. In 2011, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also called cyber-physical systems and Internet of Things (IoT), which can communicate with each other and people in real-time. Nowadays, the Internet of things brings many advantages such as sourcing raw materials and e-meet suppliers, and plenty of sites like eBay, Alibaba and Etsy are offering manufacturing services.
Consumers are aware of these friendly platforms and becoming more demanding. Considering new generations like Millennials and Gen Z, the main consumers in this digital era, these people are constantly influenced by social media platforms with persuasive features and showing fashion trends through fashion influencers every day. Most importantly, they feel more attracted to affordable prices by shopping outfits and getting new styles. Even so, this type of consumer behavior is starving for novelty and brings the speed of garment production using the mass production process, which is the manufacturing of high-level volume using an assembly line or automatization process. Unfortunately, this process brings the evil fast fashion business model to the market which is a quick manufacturing process using cheap materials and labor force, and it is sold at affordable prices to consumers who might throw out clothes after just a few wears.
Fast fashion brands are very well-known worldwide and include the Spanish brand Inditex-Zara, Japanese brand Uniqlo, Swedish clothing brand H&M and American brand Forever 21. These companies have a speedy supply chain with low direct costs and rely on outsourced and often cheap labor. This allows for merchandising every day and the production of clothes quickly using off producers. To maintain a high demand for production, fashion brands are looking for tech solutions to improve the efficiency of the production processes and savings on direct costs. Lately, Fast fashion brands are moving towards more sustainable practices. To begin, the fashion retailer Inditex-Zara is going green, it announced in its annual meeting in July 2019 that all of the cotton, linen, and polyester used by Zara will be organic, sustainable or recycled by 2025. The use of those fibers, plus a semi-synthetic fiber called viscose, accounts for 90% of the raw materials used by the brands. Inditex said it will use all sustainable viscose by 2023. Besides, H&M started green campaigns like using cotton from sustainable sources and with an ambition of using 100% recycled and other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. Japanese retailer Uniqlo announced an environmental policy in June 2018 identifying five areas to improve in its business such as climate change, energy efficiency, water stewardship, waste management, resource efficiency, and chemical management. Another company, which is sourcing sustainable materials and going through a production revolution is the Ministry of Supply known for using Shima Seiki machines, which allows a new 3D knitting process and designs anti-wrinkle clothes digitally and customized clothes on demand avoiding mass production, saving time and resources.
In apparel factories, Clothing production processes start with the design of the clothes, then pattern cutting which consists of cutting the material for the prototypes, then printing machines to get garment pattern layout easily, next use the cutting machines to get clothes, pressing machines to flatten out the garment material. Some technologies make fast process 3D knitting and dying automation which minimize the overproduction and waste of resources.
Through the years using textiles machines has been improved and offering new features to make production easier. Although knitting clothes by hand is still valuable and conscious about climate changes and social impact like artisan empowerment, people also feel attracted to handmade clothes and its story behind it.
According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, 97% of all clothing sold in the United States is imported and Americans buy an average of 64 items of clothing per year, although clothing manufacturing has stalled in America, the retail sector is growing strong, people are buying and selling clothes.
What is the future of manufacturing in fashion?
The next industrial revolution called Industry 4.0 has the potential to change the whole manufacturing process and business model, this means the transition from ordinary plants to smart factories. Big fashion brands are leveraging innovative technologies for the entire value chain process to offer the best consumer experience in stores, as we read in my previous article how to thrive in the digital transformation Era. Clothing brands are constantly looking for innovative ways to get their clothes in front of buyers and create awareness and demand in the market. Increasingly, fashion brands are using AI and Machine learning to maximize a user's shopping experience, improve the efficiency of sales systems and enhance the sales processes using predictive analytics.
In the years to come, the usage of automation in manufacturing processes in the fashion industry will face challenges for human workers, they might be removed entirely from the production process, that require different skillsets to control, maintain, and supervise the technology. Human-robot technology can boost worker's productivity by knitting, dyeing or cutting clothes in a fast way through cyber-physical systems. Intelligent Manufacturing uses a method for automatic recognition of individual objects with radio frequency identification (RFID), by reading its tags of a garment the information about the temperature for washing, ironing and pack operations without any human-machine interaction. Computer-aided quality control systems to speed up the quality control process and collect production-related data regularly. These technologies improve the efficiency of production processes, quick turnaround, reduce operational costs, increase the quality of clothes, reduce delivery time and augments human textiles employees. Technology can also play a role in designing clothes using human-AI collaborative design, then trying clothes on using augmented reality (AR) apps or mirrors.
Amazon is using machine learning algorithms and analytics to measure sales trends, also small retailers are leveraging this technology to understand the fashion market, which may enable them to identify patterns and predictive analytics that can provide insightful trends, consumer behavior, purchase patterns, and inventory demand to manage and optimize an efficient supply chain by reducing wastage.
To sum up, the clothing and apparel industry is keeping up with the world around it and using platforms to showcase new trends. E-commerce has trained consumers to access all garments around the world and consumers are increasingly driven to buying sustainable products. Retailers need to adapt to this trend and offer what consumers demand. Also, fashion brands should take a new direction and take industry 4.0 along with AI, AR, Human-Robot technology, intelligent manufacturing and machine learning more seriously to gain competitive advantages and stand out with a unique visual communication platform to expose digitally its fashion brand and satisfy a high level of consumers.
INDUSTRY 4.0 REVOLUTION IN CLOTHING AND APPAREL FACTORIES: APPAREL 4.0, AUTOR Ebru Gökalp1, Mert Onuralp Gökalp2, P. Erhan Eren3