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The Apparel Story: Will Technology be the Key Driver in Manufacturing?

by Prabir Jana

02-July-2018  |  12 mins read

For the first-time ever, the developed and the developing worlds are using similar platforms, including the Internet, social media, and mobile technologies. Farmers in India are tracking crop prices on their mobile phones; Kenyan and South African entrepreneurs are crowdfunding their new ventures; Google and Uber are delving into driverless automobiles; Silicon Valley start-ups are competing with long-established defence contractors and the health insurance industry is being overrun by companies which started out as SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers. The question is, ‘Do the business leaders of Apparel Manufacturing Industry acknowledge these changes, and have a clear sense of their significance?’ Dr. Prabir Jana, NIFT, Delhi writes. . .

While technology is playing a critical role in the Government of India’s key initiatives such as GST, Digital India, smart cities, and cyber security programs, enabling transformation and supporting India’s growth, PwC’s Global survey results on CEOs about what they believe will most shape the stakeholders’ expectations about businesses in their industries over the next five years. This unequivocally points out to the technological advances as the most influential.

Apparel supply chain is consisting of downstream functions (retailing) managed in advanced economies and upstream functions (manufacturing) managed by least developed economies. Given the unique distributed structure, and being branded as ‘labour-driven’, can apparel manufacturing business leaders be forgiven for feeling ‘lost’ and ‘exempted’ from the overall technological vision?

History has favoured those apparel companies that have waited out for the Next New Technology with the belief that it’s a technology trend that won’t, amount to much, or won’t affect their ‘labour-oriented’ industries for decades. But, what’s unique in the 21st century, though, is the ubiquity of technology, together with its accessibility, reach, depth, and impact. According to PwC, the factors catalysing the rapid adoption of technology in manufacturing are:

  • Cheaper access to technology
  • Globalisation of technology
  • Increased comfort with technology
  • The competitive advantage of technology
  • Multiplier effect of technology

Cheaper access to technology

The three fundamental technologies of computation, storage, and connectivity are exponentially cheaper and more capable today than just a few decades ago (see Figure below). The rapid growth of Internet, mobility, and cloud computing, combined with the open-source movement and increased access to capital, has lowered the barriers to entry for start-ups and non-traditional competitors, enabling them to scale swiftly and to upend the playing field industry-after-industry. Given the small and medium enterprise status of apparel manufacturing and mostly entrepreneurial ventures, the cheaper access to technology will be an incentive towards adoption by apparel manufacturing organisations.

Globalisation of technology

For the first time, the developed and the developing worlds are creating, collaborating, communicating, and consuming on similar technology platforms, spurring global innovation.

Of the 253 ‘unicorns’ tracked by CB Insights, 65 are from China, and 10 from India. These highly valued, fast-growing newcomers have global ambitions and are developing innovative platforms for use in sectors as diverse as finance, online-to-offline services, and the sharing economy.

Ironically, in the global list, only three unicorn companies are related to clothing, while as many as 35 are e-commerce related, which is of great concern. Apparel product development is still primitive in terms of use of technology for improvement of process. Probably the easier collaboration possibilities will spur increased adoption of collaborative development tools (e.g. PLM and 3D simulation, digital printing) across supply chain partners.

Figure: Technlogy costs are plummenting (end the reach is increasing)

Increased comfort with technology

The more we use the Internet, laptops, mobile devices, collaboration tools, and other technologies in our personal and professional lives, the more the society is comfortable with all things that are technology-related. Business users now expect the same ease of use in their workplace technologies that they experience with their personal devices, revealing consumer technology’s huge influence. Even when the BYOD (Bring your own device) concept failed to impart the comfort and confidence of using technology at executive level, the social networking phenomenon was able to break the technology barrier and achieve the comfort level at worker level. Smartphone penetration among workforce at the bottom of the skill pyramid (also known as sewing machine operators) is a boon for manufacturing organisations. Traditionally desktop-based and server-based applications like ERP, PLM faced tremendous resistance from users in the apparel manufacturing organisations due to fear of transparency as well as due to the feeling of doing additional data entry work. It is expected that the mobile applications, developed around shopfloor functionalities, will give the necessary boost to the organisational performance.

The competitive advantage of technology

Traditionally, the management practices (now sustainable practices also added to the list) gave the much needed competitive advantage to apparel manufacturers. Nineties was the era of ISO certification, the early 2000 saw the SPC implementation by buyer’s representatives and lean manufacturing has been the flavour since last one decade. Sustainable practices are the added qualification for manufacturers. However, apparel manufacturers never took the technology route to gain competitive advantage.

If the Digital IQ survey by PwC is to be believed, companies that are technology leaders in their industries are twice as likely to achieve rapid revenue and profit growth as the laggards. Originally seen as a tool largely for improving efficiency – doing the same things better and more cheaply – technological innovations are now the fastest means of opening up new revenue streams and transforming traditional industries. We need the innovative technology enablers to change the manufacturing landscape now.

Multiplier effect of technology

Last but not the least, individual technologies build on each other and amplifying each other’s effects, set the stage for what some are calling ‘Industry 4.0’. While AI – an emerging technology – is the motive force behind robots (another evolving technology), IIoT is the key driver behind cyber-physical systems transforming the factory floor into a co-working space with robots. Similarly, Augmented Reality (AR) will give a fillip to training and instruction-related functions and real time physiological data of humans will give fillip to simulation or digital twin technology and so on. The choice of technology for the apparel manufacturers will be limited only to imagination.

Conclusion

Collectively, these driving factors are pushing big questions to the surface – questions that C-suite executives (CEOs, CTOs, CFOs, etc.) themselves are struggling to find an answer. The specific technologies which are most impactful to a company can – and likely will – vary, of course, but these technologies are likely to create cross-industry and global impact over the coming years. These are at varying degrees of maturity; some have been around for years but are finally hitting their stride of late, while others are maturing rapidly.

The technologies that apparel manufacturers should absolutely consider are:

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Software algorithms that are capable of performing tasks which normally would require human intelligence such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and language translation. AI is an ‘umbrella’ concept that is made up of numerous subfields such as machine learning, which focus on the development of programs that can teach themselves to learn, understand, reason, plan, and act (i.e., become more ‘intelligent’) when exposed to new data in the right quantities.

2. Augmented Reality (AR): Addition of information or visuals to the physical world, via graphics and/or audio overlay, to improve the user experience for a task or a product. This ‘augmentation’ of the real world is achieved via supplemental devices that render and display the said information.

3. Blockchain: Distributed electronic ledger that uses software algorithms to record and confirm transactions with reliability and anonymity. The record of events is shared between many parties and information once entered cannot be altered, as the downstream chain reinforces upstream transactions.

4. Autonomous Land-based Vehicles: Air unmanned land-based vehicles, that move without an on-board human pilot and can be operated autonomously (via on-board computers) on a predefined flight plan or can be controlled remotely.

5. Internet of Things (IoT): Network of objects – devices, vehicles, etc. – embedded with sensors, software, network connectivity, and compute capability, that can collect and exchange data over the Internet. IoT enables devices to be connected and be remotely monitored or controlled. The term IoT has come to represent any device that is now ‘connected’ and accessible via a network connection. The Industrial IoT (IIoT) is a subset of IoT and refers to its use in manufacturing and industrial sectors.

6. Robots: Electro-mechanical machines or virtual agents that automate, augment or assist human activities, autonomously or according to set instructions – often a computer program. (Note: Drones are also robots, but we list them as a separate technology.)

7. Virtual Reality (VR): Computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or a complete environment, within a defined and contained space (unlike AR), that viewers can interact with in realistic ways. VR is intended to be an immersive experience and typically requires equipment, most commonly a helmet/headset.

8. 3D Printing: Additive manufacturing techniques used to create three-dimensional objects based on digital models by layering or ‘printing’ successive layers of materials. 3D printing relies on innovative ‘inks’ including plastic, metal, and more recently, glass and wood.