The chase to achieve digitalisation in fashion is heating up, but it is also true that just recognising the importance of going digital is not enough. There is a difficult road ahead to achieve the goal and this series is aimed at highlighting the stages of the chase for companies that have or want to walk the talk!
Before I head onto this series, I want to inform the sustainability-preaching readers that digitalisation is not a clean and green alternative to physical and does contribute to emission of greenhouse gases, so let us not have any illusions. I will address that aspect in a separate feature; in this feature, I want to discuss the challenges of digitalisation – where we should do it and where we shouldn’t.
Readers may recall that in the opening feature of this series (a link is attached for those who missed it), we had discussed the basic advantages of digitalisation in the fashion industry, but ironically there is information asymmetry on the subject. By this I simply mean there are varying expectations of stakeholders when talking about digitalisation; while management is trying to use digitalisation for performance improvement, at the same time the worker may feel threatened that his/her job is at stake. While top management is looking for transparent production status from the shopfloor, production executives may not like to share the actual production status. Also, while the top management might feel that going digital would make the merchandiser’s daily routine easier, the merchandiser feels the same as an additional task. Unless there is consensus about the expectations amongst the stakeholders, or at least all stakeholders see some benefit for each of them, there will be resistance towards digitalisation. I will explain each with examples.
Also Read: Digital Fashion (1) – The Chase
Should manager know the actual production status?
Long before computer aided pattern making, grading and marker making became popular and the internet burst into the global scene, the apparel industry did try digitalisation of shopfloors. The garment manufacturing traditionally worked with three basic functional departments – cutting-sewing-finishing and daily production reports of three departments in three separate sheets used to be at the desk of the manager every morning.
While the tabular sheet used to report daily cut-sew-finish quantities style-wise, line-wise, very soon managers realised the discrepancy between the reported and actual figure. As totalling daily figures (from multiple daily reports) would often generate unrealistic scenarios like for a particular style cut quantity – 6,000, sewing quantity – 6,120 and finished quantity – 6,300 and so on. How can you sew more than the number of pieces cut? Hilarious! The managers lost their confidence in the data presented in the daily report and would simply dial the concerned supervisor to know the status. The importance of daily reports diminished, and these remained as mere paperwork without any relevance.
To solve the problem, database programmers were roped in to link the daily production reports with data validation like total sewing quantity can’t be more than total cut quantity, sewing can’t happen before cutting, etc. Digitalisation crawled in with computerisation of Management Information System (MIS). Several custom-made as well as legacy systems appeared and were implemented with a single point objective to improve data accuracy and data transparency.
Here comes the real challenge – who wants transparency? According to human psychology, anyone would like to hide specific information from their counterpart to safeguard their performance. For example, marketing executives would like to hide the actual delivery date from the production executives, the line supervisors would like to hide the actual production figures from their seniors, the merchandisers would like to manipulate the actual approval date in front of their production counterparts, etc.
The whole effort of digitising the shopfloor was brought to its knees when executives realised that digitisation would expose their inefficiency. Daily reporting at the end of the shift was merely a post-mortem of data, all benefit went to management (towards transparency) and there was no benefit to floor manager, so there was resistance. Now the technology has improved to capture real time data from the shopfloor; looking at the WIP status in real time, the floor manager now can change the operator allocation to balance the line better. Therefore, we see real time shopfloor tracking (digitalisation) is getting better adoption now.
Will computerisation take away my job?
Then came the digitisation of the pattern making, grading and marker making. While the Pattern Design System (PDS) module of CAD is actually deskilling the job of pattern maker, it faced huge resistance from traditional pattern makers. The PDS faced so much resistance from celebrity designers (simply because of miniaturisation) that leading CAD suppliers (read Lectra and Gerber) had to offer an actual size digital pattern making table (at huge cost) so that the pattern makers can feel comfortable (working with real size patterns using real size tools).
Grading is just making a repetitive job faster and without any chance of mistake, and hence received quicker acceptance. Marker making initially was a challenge of supremacy between man and computer program – who can give better marker efficiency? Gradually manufacturers learned to supplement manual expertise and understood other key benefits like time saving and mistake proofing capabilities resulting in overall performance improvement and good acceptance…
Initially the approach towards digitisation of pattern making was faulty; first the paper patterns were prepared as usual by pattern makers, then paper patterns were digitised by computer operators (by using a digitiser, a large costly device). Only then digital patterns were graded. The manufacturers felt digitisation is an additional step – additional investment of equipment, manpower and time.
Only when the pattern makers started drafting patterns directly on computer screens (industry should acknowledge the yeoman service by Tukatech), true potential of PDS was realised. Now pattern makers feel comfortable using miniature size tools, save time in repetitive functions, save time in searching old patterns, etc. – it is a win-win story for management and workers.
The mantra for apparel manufacturers should be to remove the information asymmetry between all stakeholders; all should be made aware about their own benefits. The management should also find the right balance between the benefits that digitalisation can offer; whether the process will become faster or slower, information will become transparent or opaque, tasks will become easier or difficult, and so on. The manufacturer should identify the pain points (like whether we need deskilling or mistake proofing, etc.,) and align the digital journey with their goal to achieve performance improvement.
In the next feature of the series, titled Digital fashion: Rise of Avatar in Garment Fitting, I will talk at length about personalised and programmed avatars in garment fitting. Stay tuned!