The fashion industry is changing at a pace never seen before. What worked well in the past might not be an efficient solution today. Fashion brands need to understand that the old way of apparel manufacturing is rapidly transforming in a manner that many cannot keep up with. Customisation is quickly being integrated into every aspect of human lives, including clothing especially in the USA, which is said to be one of the prominent countries where on-demand or customisation concept is prevailing.
Unfortunately, the businesses in the USA have shut over the years due to their inability to give the right colour, right size, right length and, ultimately, the right garment to the consumers. On the other hand, manufacturing models in the Asian countries, are not built with customisation in mind; so as more and more people are demanding more customised options, on-demand manufacturers are coming in to play especially in the USA which is the largest apparel importer in the world and has not been able to capitalise on mass manufacturing, and thereby is catering to on-demand apparel manufacturing.
But what exactly does the ‘on-demand’ concept offer to the customers? Is it Quality? Is it Sustainability? or, is it Fast Delivery? The answer to all these questions is Yes! On-demand has a great chance in the high-quality arena where the customer is willing to pay for the quality and get exactly what he/she wants in the timeframe they decide.
In addition to addressing inventory challenges in the Asian countries, on-demand has an immediate, positive effect in reducing the apparel industry’s contribution to pollution. It is said that the apparel and textile industry is the second-worst polluter in the world. It is caused in part by producing clothing based on an unscientific forecasting model and shipping the orders halfway around the world. The clothing is then warehoused or placed in distribution centres and retail stores. When the clothing doesn’t sell or is discontinued, it is sent to landfills. On-Demand is a cleaner, more efficient method of manufacturing that adds value to each step of the process.
Team Apparel Resources explores the USA and brings to its readers an exclusive coverage of OnPoint Manufacturing, Inc. (OPM), a prominent On-Demand apparel manufacturing company located in Florence (Alabama). Below are some excerpts from our interview with J. Kirby Best, Chairman and Christopher Taylor, Director (Marketing), OnPoint Manufacturing (OPM) who address the aforementioned issues head-on and bring ‘apparel on-demand’ (AOD) business model to the market.
AR: Tell us the idea behind starting OnPoint Manufacturing. Is there something special in the name?
Kirby: OnPoint Manufacturing (OPM) was created to address the inefficiencies and the negative environmental impact that the apparel industry has today. But it is also about adding real value.
We believe that one-off ‘On-Demand’ manufacturing can give the customers exactly what they are looking for without the need for creating unwanted and expensive inventory and incurring all those costs.
Yes, we chose this name because of the Oxford Dictionary definition which describes ‘OnPoint’ as ‘relevant and appropriate’.
AR: As a company, which is currently in the process of moving towards a more ‘AOD – Apparel-On-Demand’ factory, what are the main challenges and barriers that you are facing in adopting these new processes and how are you tackling them?
Kirby: We have solved the manufacturing process of ‘On-Demand’ personalised clothing, so now the main challenge has moved to the front end of the industry. The time from when the creative minds design a product until it is ready to produce not only takes too long, but there is little or no automation and no consistency in the process.
We are closely tied to the firm PAAT, Inc which is working on the development of the software necessary to drive the automatic ingestion of the metadata (graded patterns, order of operations, orders, etc.) into automated factories or machines. This will greatly enhance the whole on-demand process.
The apparel industry is slow to adopt change. So, there is no question that the challenge remains to have a greater adoption of our on-demand business model. Brands today are using an outdated system. The apparel industry has been operating on Henry Ford’s in-line manufacturing system that revolutionised factories in 1913 and has remained almost unchallenged since. OnPoint Manufacturing picks up the best of the in-line practices and adds a new dimension of automation, computer integration, and a unique new element of on-demand customisation.
Encouraged by the global explosion of on-demand and mass customisation in other industries, the team at OnPoint has designed an almost three-dimensional system to supplant Ford’s linear line that had become too inflexible. OnPoint’s factory model automates and integrates just about every piece of the process, from order entry to delivery, yet keeps the fine skills of the seamstresses. OnPoint’s facility produces high quality garments, in any quantity, cost-effectively, and quickly.
The supply chain has been stretched to the limit in the apparel business. OnPoint seized an opportunity and collaborated with experts who possess boldly creative and technically brilliant minds in order to build a solution that addresses these challenges and can also add significant value for a customer.
More specifically, on-demand solves issues such as out of stock, out of inventory, out of the right size, colour, hem length, sleeve length, etc. On-Demand adds value to the customer, brand, and retailer by producing exactly what is needed, when it’s needed.
AR: You mentioned that OPM has upgraded Henri Ford’s in-line assembly system as per its own requirement. What is that upgradation and how is it beneficial to you?
Kirby: The benefit to Henry Ford’s in-line assembly system is its extreme efficiency. The downside to the in-line system is that it takes weeks and weeks to change it over to allow it to manufacture a new product. The OPM system maximises the efficiencies of an in-line system which allows us to change the system every 1.5 seconds so that it can handle the next product coming down the line.
AR: You also mentioned that OPM is working closely with PAAT, Inc. How exactly is PAAT helping OPM in its operations? Please elaborate a bit.
Kirby: PAAT (Purchase Apparel Activated Technologies) has developed a process that allows software programs to communicate with each other. This allows OPM to reliably ingest digital patterns into the factory and manufacture new products quickly and efficiently. PAAT works closely with all the leading software companies in the apparel industry to ensure that designers and brands ‘fit’ with an on-demand manufacturing model like OPM’s.
AR: What is the current capacity of your manufacturing unit? And, what is the ‘AOD Business Model’ you have adopted to cater your clients/customers?
Kirby: The answer is 2.3 dresses a minute. Capacity is a tough number to understand in a one-off environment – based on a quality 6 panel shift dress, our fully staffed Florence, Alabama Facility has a theoretical capacity of 2.3 dresses a minute.
Our on-demand model automates and integrates almost every piece of the apparel manufacturing process from order entry to delivery. The cohesive components that are driven by complex software allow OnPoint to manufacture millions of unique SKU’s on demand reducing inventory costs and streamlining the whole supply chain. Our facility can produce high quality garments, in any quantity, cost-effectively, and quickly.
We provide our clients the following benefits:
- Improved inventory control; reduced overhead
- Profitability on every single piece sold
- Fast turnaround on orders
- Complete fulfilment services
- Minimised returns
- Eco-Friendly products
- ‘Made in America’
AR: 2.3 dresses a minute…that’s impressive. How did you arrive at such a figure? Can you explain a little bit?
Kirby: The reason that the factory is capable of producing 2.3 dresses per minute is because it can handle a wide range of products (due to the reduction in set-up time). The specific number of 2.3 per minute assumes that the plant is running at full capacity, full speed, and we are producing a simple, six panel, and unlined shift dress. Each dress takes an hour and a half to go through the process, but 2.3 dresses are coming off the end of the line each minute.
AR: Handling such a vast number of varieties is no doubt a mammoth task in a huge country like the US, not only in terms of designs/silhouettes/prints but also in terms of input materials such as zippers, buttons, and other trims. How are these issues addressed by OPM?
Kirby: The customers supply all the materials for their garments and we store the items in our factory for their exclusive use.
AR: Technology is the challenge besides the seamstress…, and that is the only way to address the issue of cost and delivery… In which all areas is OPM using technology or systems to speed up delivery and retain quality?
Kirby: OPM uses technology in all aspects of the manufacturing and delivery processes except for the sewing positions. The seamstress is a small percentage of the overall cost to manufacture a garment. Our goal was to automate as much as possible and eliminate the time that a person takes to touch the garment, while still retaining the craftsmanship of the seamstress. We have our eye on the sewing automation technology and would switch over when we see that the technology saves money and maintains quality.
AR: Since OnPoint is the technically advanced unit, how is the rapid move towards automated production and ‘Industry 4.0’ affecting your manufacturing process?
Kirby: OnPoint is the definition of Industry 4.0 in every practical sense. Our frustration lies in that the support structure surrounding the apparel industry is not developing fast enough.
AR: What about human disruption? Is it gradually becoming less of a need to have manual employment as automation takes over, and can this be an issue?
Kirby: Not necessarily. We are lucky in that we have no legacy systems and have planned from day one to train most associates in multiple functions if there is a chance of automation in that operation.
We believe there will always be a need for the fine skills of a seamstress. Although our manufacturing process is an on-demand model, we still rely on humans to manufacture the clothing. While we require less humans to actually manufacture our clothing, as our business grows, and we start to open additional facilities across the US, we will quickly increase our employee count to compensate for the customisation movement that is coming.
However, one of our challenges is actually finding skilled seamstresses in the US as most of the manufacturing has moved overseas; however, this is slowly changing with educational institutions making these skills available again to fresh and eager minds.
AR: Are there any new developments/products which have been a result of a more advanced manufacturing process? Or are there any in the pipeline which you can share?
Taylor: There are so many great items in development between 3D rendering, fitting techniques, and software, and today this is one of the most exciting industries in the world. Yes, we have a few really interesting projects in the pipeline that will help address the age-old problems in the industry.
AR: Where would you say the workwear/performance/healthcare sector stands in terms of product innovation and new technologies? Is there as much focus on this area as there is on the sports/outdoor sector, for example?
Taylor: Development in these areas is sadly lacking because of lack of awareness and demand. PerformanceScrubs.com has developed the most technically advanced medical uniforms in the business, but it has taken a long time to break into the market. We believe as people realise that their clothing could be more functional and on point, demand will increase. Just look at the newest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra uniforms – a project with Under ArmourTM, Parsons School of DesignTM and Gabi AsfourTM at Threeasfour Design StudioTM and OnPoint. They have combined aesthetic beauty with supreme functionality and comfort.
AR: Making apparel in bulk always takes the cost of garment down. How is the cost factor different in case of AOD? And how are you tackling cost issues, if any?
Taylor: Let’s look at the value first. What is it worth providing a customer exactly what they want? (American ExpressTM would say ‘Priceless!’) Getting the right length, in the exact size, with the collar you want, and the sleeve lengths you want, we believe, is the most important factor.
As far as cost is concerned, we believe that if all the factors are taken into account, and not hidden, ‘on-demand’ is very competitive… But to focus on price would be to miss the point…Give the customers exactly what they want.
Our model eliminates the need for inventory. This means that brands do not pay for inventory that may or may not sell. It means that brands are not stuck with obsolete inventory and they do not invest in warehousing.
Brands achieve more flexibility to modify their designs, to add to their portfolio, and to meet the needs of their customer. This model incorporates less risk and delivers more value, all while achieving the exact garment that they envision.
While our cost may seem higher than Asian companies, brands are not seeing all the costs associated with manufacturing, warehousing, inventory, waste, travel, and shipping their garments. If brands would look at the entire cost breakdown, they would automatically see that an on-demand model is the future of apparel manufacturing and distribution… one garment at a time.
In addition, brands do not realise how much business they are losing out due to the limits they adhere to their garments. Customisation through an on-demand model allows for greater options being made available on any one garment… Just imagine being able to offer short or long sleeves, numerous pocket options, a variety of colour combinations, collar options, the list could go on. Brands do not recognise the potential that their garments hold when they are limited to specific inventory runs.
AR: As Mr. Donald Trump is emphasising on ‘Made in America’ and Buy American-Hire American policies, how do you see the apparel industry in USA in coming years?
Kirby: Politicians come and go. To date we have seen little or no effect out of the ‘Made in America’ effort, and expect to see little from the political rhetoric. Quality apparel will increase in the US because of demand and innovations in our software, systems and equipment.
We see change coming in because more and more consumers are demanding custom options and personalisation for their apparel. But make no mistake about it – it is a global village.