The global fashion industry has been witnessing changes at a rapid pace. The practices industry stakeholders have followed for decades are not relevant anymore in today’s time, and the future fashion industry certainly contains some massive unexpected transformation poised with changing consumer demands who are more aware than ever and expect clothing brands to deliver new products to the market almost instantly. If brands and manufacturers do not work collaboratively to adapt to this change, they might not sustain in businesses. US-based global technology provider Gerber Technology senses this transformation and is assisting consumers, brands, manufacturers and complete ecosystem to come together and be quicker to the market without any hassles.
In an exclusive conversation with Team Apparel Resources, Karsten Newbury, Chief Strategy and Digital Officer, Gerber Technology, opened up on enlightening the industry about the significance of the company’s solutions which are bringing industry’s stakeholders together in the most effective way.
AR: What is your observation on the use of technology and automation in the global apparel manufacturing industry?
Karsten: From a strategic perspective, the way we look at it is that markets are certainly going through multiple cycles of economic development. If I talk about global scenario, Ethiopia and other African countries are still underdeveloped markets with tremendous potential. But where the skill set of workers is still low, and while manpower is cheap, the infrastructure is not always suitable for progressive manufacturing. Whereas, Asian countries are facing challenges of rising wages and overhead costs: especially China and countries like Vietnam are becoming expensive manufacturing destinations, which directly results in increased pressure on the manufacturers to adopt automation. I visited Vietnam a few weeks back, where I met many manufacturers that aren’t using automation in a significant way yet.
Huge manufacturing set-ups, adequate infrastructure plants and employing thousands of labour but still low on automation! This represents a tremendous opportunity for these companies, and their management knows about this. Though Vietnam as well as Cambodia are a great market for us, they still need a lot of penetration from our side. So in summary, there are a lot of opportunities and we are able to help manufacturers wherever they are in the world with different levels of education and automation at the right stages.
AR: According to you, what are the necessary steps an apparel manufacturer must take to transform business?
Karsten: Labour wages, along with the cost of fabric wastage, is huge in Asian manufacturing units. The first thing typically I would see probably is manual pattern making practice that can be automated, thereby making the process much faster and more efficient and reliable. Before using any sort of automation in the production process, the companies can start using software for pattern making and, if they want to phase automation, they can get into automatic cutting later. For more advancement, the manufacturers have to bring in together more end-to-end solutions.
AR: Consumer preferences are changing and this scenario is driving brands and manufacturers to make their processes more agile. How does Gerber see this from its own perspective?
Karsten: That’s true! There is tremendous pressure building between brands and manufacturers on integration as consumers are driving the fashion industry now. They want garments that fit or they won’t buy or worse yet return them. On the other hand, the manufacturers aren’t looking at only the lowest possible production cost but also at the end profit, which depends on how many discounts brands have to give and how much material they have to discard as excess inventory. So, we are working hard to develop synergy between brands and manufacturers through our business model and technological advancement. Once they understand the solution, they can analyse how our connected platform can help them best run their business. For example, with new ‘on demand models’, based on which product category is performing well in the market, they can apply different production models. This is all possible because we have invested a lot in the last three years to fill the supply chain integration gap, which helps drive efficiency for our clients.
AR: You said Vietnam and Cambodia are great markets for Gerber. What made you mention about Cambodia and not Bangladesh or India for that matter?
Karsten: Those were examples. We see a number of key growth markets outside of the traditional markets like the US or China. These growth markets definitely include Bangladesh and India as well. As I mentioned earlier, we see companies in different countries looking outside of just their region, and that’s driving an ‘automation mindset’. For example, Cambodia has grown significantly in recent years, increasingly becoming a key destination for global brands and retailers. I would say one of the things Cambodia is aggressively adopting now is educating the workers. The use of technology is also on the priority list of the factory owners, and as a technology provider, we can easily observe that. When you visit companies there and talk about the entire workflow, Cambodia shows huge potential and that’s where we have additional opportunities apart from what we have already tapped. And the same is true for Vietnam where there are tremendous opportunities and it is a win-win situation for us and our customers.
At Gerber, we are really fortunate that we have a global presence and can leverage learnings from one market to another. At the same time, our local support infrastructure is well-developed and customers can rely on our world-class service and our regional partners.
AR: There are different production models including on-demand, mass production and mass customisation across the globe. How are your solutions helping industry achieve success in each of those models?
Karsten: First of all, when we talk about some key components in a production model, the digital development is very much the same, no matter what work model we use. Ideally it combines 2D/3D CAD pattern making, PLM, and you want that digital product development capability whether you produce in high volume or On-demand.
When we go into high-volume production, we then leverage production optimisation tools like nesting, planning and cut-planning where some of our customers save 20 per cent fabric, thanks to our best algorithm on the market. Whereas, when we talk about on-demand, then we have different tools like made-to-measure, matching for printed fabric as well as integration with digital printing. So, we have different solutions for all production models with some common features in all of them. But the data consistency and integration is shared across all of them.
I want to further add that high-volume manufacturers should test some on-demand sample making as they are generating thousands of samples every month which are going in waste and incur a huge amount of money that is negatively impacting their profitability. Virtually they can make samples in a number of options in quick time and reduce the time and material wastage that occurs with physical samples.
AR: What are your views on 3D virtual prototyping?
Karsten: 3D is increasingly being used by all players, irrespective of their business size. First, it’s important to understand that there is not just one 3D tool. What we are focused on at Gerber at this point is ‘3D for fit and production’, which to us is an essential function of a 3D tool. If I talk about 3D virtual prototyping provided by companies other than Gerber, they are more concerned about 3D for design where it’s more about having an idea, visualising and seeing how it looks like on a body. You just go through the idea process that makes it workable for brands and sometimes for manufacturers that help brands create an idea. But when it stops, you have to create the patterns to actually produce the garment. Gerber has a different approach as we put design, fit and production together to make it viable for the entire supply chain including the end customer. The 3D model has an associated production-ready pattern.
And, we have made significant investments in simulation technology to be very realistic. The big difference between our 3D focus and that of others is the connection to the 2D pattern. Remember that a 2D pattern defines the production quality and fit. So in order to have simulations that not only look good, but also represent the actual (finished) product realistically, it’s essential to have a 1:1 connection between the 3D simulation and the production pattern. In other words, we want to ensure that ‘what you see is what you get’, identifying fit issues and being able to fix it immediately on the pattern. We are not saying that more visual ‘ideation 3D products’ aren’t useful, but our focus is on ensuring realistic simulations that can turn into real physical products at high fidelity.
AR: You collaborated with Danit Peleg four years back and partnered with Stephanie London last year. Is this a part of your strategy to go ahead with renowned designers to help understand the fashion industry? What can be achieved through such collaborations?
Karsten: Yes, absolutely. We certainly work with large customers, but we also like to iterate heavily with small, very nimble companies. Also, it’s challenging for a small designer to compete and maintain pace with the speed of change in fashion today. A great number of designers are dependent upon traditional development cycles. They are creative but, unfortunately, are quite slow in moving from inspiration to finished garment. This further leads to business practices that are not sustainable. That’s why we feel it’s good for the industry that we are collaborating with designers to demonstrate how integrated technology can support the ability to produce fashion in a sustainable way, whether you are small or large.
Danit Peleg is pioneering 3D printing which is a technology that certainly will play a key role long term. And we will keep working on solutions for our customers, both for short term and long term. Her 3D printed collection was created using a wide range of CAD and printing systems, including Blender and AccuMark 3D visualisation, animation and simulation. It’s a great example for innovation by integrating various technologies.
One example that we are connecting more directly with our customers is the new innovation centre in New York City that we just opened end of last year. It allows us to connect with large and small brands and manufacturers. In our innovation centre, designers can go from design to print, cut and sew in a matter of hours with a fully connected microfactory featuring the latest versions of AccuMark 2D, AccuMark 3D, YuniquePLM, AccuMark Made-to-Measure, AccuPlan, as well as the Kornit Presto and the GERBERcutter Z1.
Specifically, our visitors are able to create their own personalised garments starting with a simple iPad application and connecting it to the microfactory production process. We are working with partners and putting more microfactories in place, so in that regard, we hope to develop new business models that can help our customers advance their competitiveness. Then we can keep improving the solution by collaborating with our customers because we want to help companies adopt technology and show what can be done today.
AR: Gerber focuses a lot on the significance of data. Apparel manufacturers fail to even understand how data in their factories can do wonders in boosting overall workflow. What’s your take?
Karsten: We believe that data is the key ‘connective tissue’ for the success of any future-oriented company. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fact that companies aren’t leveraging a lot of data as long as they are focused on improving. The good news is that technology, such as our own, is increasingly easy to adopt and gives manufacturers just a wealth of information. For example, our latest generation of IoT (Internet of Things) software takes valuable production information from our cutters and feeds it into either a centralised dashboard, or directly into our customers’ business systems. Very few manufacturers use this technology today. But it’s available and we are innovating heavily to keep making it easier to adopt and more powerful. With the right mindset, our customers can take advantage of the current capabilities and upgrade their operations over time. A mindset focused on continuous improvement (data-driven) will separate the successful companies from those that fall behind.