Thursday, August 1, 2019

3D Digital Design and Demand Sourcing


Over and over we hear the mantra “ time-to-market” is the key selling point for the exciting new technology of 3-D design. Although time-to-market can be an important function of digitizing the design development pattern making and other functions of 3-D, it’s not the most important result of the adoption of this technology. The incredibly complex development that reduces a complex product including design, machinery, process and colorization to a packet of binary code that represents a product in its entirety is a fundamental building block of the information age. The real impact point of 3-D design is not its function but the form of its output. In this vision of the real future, hundreds of thousands of square feet of warehouse space and billions of dollars in inventory are reduced to tiny computer files accessed from a digital cloud through your phone, tablet or laptop. Millions of products accessible on-demand through digital manufacturing and ready for purchase when the consumer is ready to buy. Tons of waste and pollution disappear because products are produced on demand from local factories from vast virtual inventories available online or at your local store. Stores that using AR to provide the opportunity for shoppers to browse through hundreds more products than were ever available from racks and shelves. Products that are available digitally manufactured on-site or in a nearby Micro-Factory. These successful retailers no longer have to risk inventories built from long-range forecasts and rendered outdated by ethereal trends that shift with the speed of the Internet.

The Seismic Impact of Virtual Inventories
Building virtual inventories is the most important eventual output of digital 3-D design. As the companies who create this fantastic software begin to understand their overall role in the commerce of the information age they are extending their software to include both merchandising and manufacturing links. The ability of the virtual inventory to connect directly with digital manufacturing allows it to become a true infinite warehouse of products. Even more important is the demand link between virtual design and the retail and e-tail merchandising of products.  Providing visual link that allows retail stores and e-tail providers to increase their selection through a highly efficient AR experience that allow the consumer to efficiently find exactly the product they want is the critical part of the extension of the 3-D digital design function. Using 3-D software as the initial point, vast inventories of products can be created through virtual design, sold through AR’s virtual sensory experiences and digitally manufactured on demand. In addition the further development of real-time digital design will allow consumers and buyers to customize product to fit their specific needs guaranteeing higher value and by extension higher profits. The digital design information handshake between virtual inventory and digital manufacturing will allow high levels of efficiency and accuracy while reducing waste and pollution in providing these custom products.

Pursuing Profit Not Just Lower Costs
In reality ” speed to sale” will always trump “speed to market” as the ultimate goal for visual design software. Creating an efficient path with intrinsic value as a path to the ultimate source of funds, the consumer, will always be a winning hand. Unfortunately, very few of the strategic planners in the visual design category are clearly pursuing the virtual inventory solution as their ultimate goal. In the end the ability to create more designs faster without linking them directly to merchandising technologies is likely to increase the risk of overproduction and possibly lower the sell-through rate at retail.
Is understandable why the software companies have focused on the process of design and development because these areas were both time-consuming and often the source of confusing or inefficient communication. Solving these problems could create a clear and quicker path through an expensive and difficult period of physical product development. Since cost savings was the focus of buyers at every level creating technology, which focused on saving time, and reducing confusion was a logical path. Now is the time for the visual software companies to begin to shift their target from just cost savings to increased measurable profits at the money generating end of the supply chain. Creating, digitizing and storing product in a form that can be easily manufactured and merchandised on demand puts virtual design software in the key role of generating profits. Capitalizing on this change in direction will put these companies in a leadership role as consumer goods commerce shifts from “supply and demand” to ”demand and supply” a paradigm which is the key to sustainability in the information age.

SOURCING at MAGIC Pioneers Integrated Purchase to Fulfillment Technology
Beginning next month SOURCING AT MAGIC will introduce brands and buyers to a new section on the floor dedicated to the evolution of technologies that create an integrated demand sourcing path from consumer merchandising through demand manufacturing and back to consumer fulfillment. This new fashion technology area will feature software and equipment dedicated to the new era of individualized high-value consumer merchandising. SOURCING AT MAGIC will continue to grow this section featuring new merchandising inventory and design technology twice year in February and August at MAGIC in Las Vegas.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

INTEGRATED MICRO-FACTORIES, THE FORECAST GAP & DEMAND SOURCING


FINDING A HOME FOR YOUR MICRO-FACTORY

One of the questions that vexes anyone interested in building or using an apparel micro-factory is: “where exactly does it fit?”  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent perfecting the technologies that go into a micro-factory but very little money has been spent on the application of the micro-factory to the process of sourcing product. There are four current practical applications of the micro-factory. The first, is as a sampling site that allows brands to physically produce a product for fit, production modeling or real-time consumer testing. The second, application is a print for pay model that usually uses direct to garment printing on T-shirts or other casual wear. Third, there is one-off production for online customized apparel sales.
The fourth application the conversion of a virtual inventory to physical inventory is by far the most important application for returning domestic production of apparel to the US market. The use of micro-factory integrated technologies to replace risky print and licensed products reduces the losses from unsold inventory that plague the retail market and to some extent the online market. Having to make decisions for large inventory investments in print and licensed products in the age of the Internet, fashion influencers, instant trend promotion and tribal identification has caused huge unsold inventories and the resulting profits stealing clearances.

 The Forecast Gap

 Remarkable advances in the technology of design and visualization have allowed apparel designers, brands and product developers to reduce the time required to visualize and prepare a new apparel design or decoration. However, these advances even though they are portrayed as reducing time-to-market really only reduce time to production. Coloring/printing the fabric, the cutting, sewing and transportation/distribution of product still creates a huge time gap between the initial concept and the presentation of the product for consumer sale. Decisions about color and print that occur this far in advance represent the huge risk that a market shift will cause a volume stocking order to go mostly unsold at retail price. Unfortunately, that retail price is what planning and profits are often based on. This gap in time and money is what we call the “forecast gap”. Placing an integrated micro-factory directly in the supply chain as a replenishment source after a minimal initial stocking order can reduce risk and in fact guarantee both profits and appropriate product stocking. Using a micro-factory for direct point-of-sale replenishment allows each retailer or online site in the distribution system to match their product availability with local demand. This means that on hand inventory can be calibrated to avoid inventory clearances but still provide accurate product availability.

Merchandising Agility

 Placing the integrated micro-factory in position between the general production sources and the consumer creates a level of sourcing agility that allows merchandising to react to out of stock situations by size, gender or color and to avoid overstock clearances by location. For the highest efficient use of the integrated micro-factory in a replenishment role, the factory (which produces no pollution) should be placed in or near the appropriate distribution center. It is important to remember that the physical space taken up by the factory can be designed to match the space that was previously taken up by the physical inventory. As a rule of thumb, hundred thousand square foot of inventory storage equals about 1 TB of space in the virtual inventory. It is also important to remember that the cost of the micro-factory is probably less than the initial stocking cost and discount losses on product in a period of less than a year. So, if you’re going to employ and integrated micro-factory to fill the forecast gap the sourcing paradigm for some products may have to change from forecasting to demand sourcing.

Demand Sourcing

 The key ingredients of demand sourcing are: product profit index, risk assessment, real-time POS replenishment and negotiating a flexible style contract. Positive real-time control of on-hand inventory by linking it directly to the demand driven Micro-Factory is the fundamental feature of demand sourcing. In order to construct and demand sourcing infrastructure the selling entity whether it is retail or e-tail needs to complete three basic pre-activation tasks.

Establish real time profit risk analysis tools

ü  Profit velocity index (PVI): point score based on gross profit times turns per week
ü  Profit Lifecycle track:  Average selling price per unit sold vs total units contracted plotted by week.

Establish period sales production for high-risk silhouettes

ü  Build or source an Integrated Micro-Factory that can provide no minimum replenishment of targeted silhouettes with variable decoration on demand.
ü  Negotiate a “Style Contract” for the on demand delivery of the total period volume of the targeted silhouette based on SKU’s from the Virtual Inventory. Establish a Virtual Inventory (VI)
ü  Using high definition visual design software build a silhouette construction and decoration TekPak inventory for the choices available in store and online for the SKU’s. (Note: 10,000 different decoration VI SKU’s will consume less than a TB of digital storage vs over 100,000 sq. ft. of physical SKU inventory warehouse space.)
ü  Test the selected greige fabric fit pattern construction of the offered sizes and/or shapes of the physical production silhouette.
ü  Install the software, communication and transportation links to facilitate POS based product lifecycle replenishment. Profit Velocity Index (PVI)

Profit Velocity Index (PVI)
Two of the newest elements in creating a demand-sourcing paradigm are the Profit Velocity Index (PVI) and the flexible Style Contract. The PVI is a competitive point index between products, which determines both the replenishment level, and ultimately SKU stocking life. In merchandising whether online or in-store the velocity of product movement is the key ingredient in determining on-hand inventory, product lifecycle and ultimately product profitability. The PVI is calculated by simply multiplying the concurrent percentage of gross profit times the turns of on-hand inventory over the period of the week. Comparing the PVI to the scores of other like product or products in a particular size or lifestyle area will determine the risk and ultimately the level of replenishment required to realize the highest possible profit levels from that particular SKU. When the PVI for a particular product dips below a predetermined minimum score the product is replaced or discontinued.

Style Contract

 The flexible Style Contract works directly with a progression of products that are driven by the replenishment lifecycle described by the PVI. The flexible Style Contract depends on digital coloration or printing which allows the integrated micro-factory to change color and/or decoration without any additional cost. In its simplest form the flexible style contract is a total volume of a particular silhouette, regardless of color or print, the brand, the retailer or the e-tailer is contracting for over a specific period of time. Once the contract is in place the buyer can determine a progression of decorations based on a real time evaluation of current trends. Whenever a product is determined by the PVI to be ready for replacement, the micro-factory moves to the next decoration or colors in the progressive list and replaces the product in the store that requires the new product. This allows the buyer and the merchandisers to work together to offer the appropriate product with the maximum PVI store by store within the distribution area. In the case of online since the product may not be made in the micro factory until after it is been purchased all of the products in the priority list of decorations can be displayed for sale since they only reside in the virtual inventory.

Where can brands and retailers learn more?

All of these applications technologies and merchandising tools will be on display and detailed in the Fashion Technology section of SOURCING at MAGIC in the unified MAGIG show August 11-14 in Las Vegas.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Where Does the Micro-Factory Fit in the Sourcing World???


Text Box: Micro-Factory at SOURCING at MAGIC built by TUKATECH, Mutoh and Graphics One and integrated by Kai Buskirk
Photo by: WD Grier


Micro-Factory at SOURCING at MAGIC built by TUKATECH, Mutoh and Graphics One and integrated by Kai Buskirk   Photo by WDG
Finding a Home for Apparel Micro-Factories
Have you been to an apparel show or textile technology show recently? Seems like every show is enthralled with the "Micro-Factory", the industry’s shiny new object. It is exciting to finally see significant technology changes in the way we design product, color fabric and cut the pieces of apparel and home products. All of these wonderful demonstrations still beg the question: Where does the Micro-Factory fit?

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last 20 years to perfect digital printing, visual design, robotic cutting and new technologies for sewing. Yet with all these investments the question of where the Micro-Factory fits and its ultimate purpose is still shrouded in mystery. Is this new paradigm the forerunner of mass customization or is it just a little production site for samples. Now is the time to clear up that mystery and look at the purpose and goal of the Integrated Micro-Factory.

Purpose of the Integrated Micro-Factory

 The primary function of the Integrated Micro-Factory is to convert a digital Virtual Inventory in to a physical inventory on demand. That reality allows a direct connection between the production of product and the demand of the market. This function give sellers the ability to switch sourcing away from the risk of supply searching for demand to a real-time relationship between consumer demand and timely product production. In the simplest of terms the purpose of the integrated Micro-Factory is to create a selling environment that is, “never out of stock, or never overstocked” by removing on-hand inventory risk and cost.

Goal of the Integrated Micro-Factory

 The goal of the integrated Micro-Factory is one simple word profit. The big difference is where the profit comes from. In the traditional sourcing model the profit is determined to a great extent by the cost of goods. The problem with forecasting cost in today’s real time world of instant trends and saturating news is ordering inventory months in advance of sale. Ultimately this time gap leads to high risk of trend shifts and unanticipated over stocked "duds" or under stocked “hot SKU’s”. These common conditions can change the cost to profit ratio dramatically after the product is on hand. Since, most manufacturers offer lower per unit price based on volume, pursuing traditional volume discounts increases the probability of overstocking and the resulting clearance discounts and profit loss. Pressing for lower cost also drives lower labor costs and poor labor conditions that can result in lower quality, environmental disasters and bad press or worse.

The Integrated Micro-Factory deals with each of these profit losses. First, the virtual inventory can be converted to physical product and restocked based on actual sales, which eliminates profit stealing clearance discounts. Second, higher profits based on better sales velocity and sustained retail price can support better labor conditions. Third, the cost of product digitally colored and produced on-demand in an integrated Micro-Factory is always fixed regardless of decoration or color allowing for extraordinary decoration agility and digitally exact quality. In addition, most micro-factories operate with no emissions, no use of water or emission of toxic waste. Another amazing side benefit is that in some multicolored apparel designs digital printing can reduce sewing labor up to 35%.

 A demand-based virtual inventory converted by an Integrated Micro-Factory allows the retailer, e-tailer or brand to produce exactly the required amount to initially stock the shelf and then only replenish what is sold. This positive control of the real-time product life-cycle and the ability to replace a non-selling SKU without a loss from dumping the held inventory usually results in a dramatic multiplication of profit regardless of a slightly higher per unit cost.

Demand Sourcing

Positive real-time control of on-hand inventory by linking it directly to the demand driven Integrated Micro-Factory is the fundamental feature of demand sourcing. In order to construct and demand sourcing infrastructure the selling entity whether it is retail or e-tail needs to complete three basic pre-activation tasks.

Establish real time profit risk analysis tools  


  • Product velocity index: point score based on gross profit times SKU turns per week
  •  Profit Lifecycle track: Average selling price per unit sold vs total units contracted plotted by week.

Establish period sales forecast for high-risk silhouettes

  • Build or source an Integrated Micro-Factory that can provide no minimum replenishment of targeted silhouettes with variable decoration on demand.
  • Negotiate a “Style Contract” for the on demand delivery of the total period volume of the targeted silhouette based on SKU’s from the Virtual Inventory.

Establish a Virtual Inventory

  • Using high definition visual design software build a silhouette construction and decoration TekPak inventory for the choices available in store and online for the SKU’s. (Note: 10,000 different SKU’s will consume less than a TB of digital storage vs over 100,000 sq. ft. of physical inventory warehouse space.)
  • Test the selected greige fabric fit pattern construction of the offered sizes and/or shapes of the physical production silhouette.
  • Install the software and communication links to facilitate POS based product lifecycle replenishment.

Micro-Merchandising

The next step is to establish the product in-store and /or online. Using the product information from the TekPaks and the high resolution images from the visual design software build the Augmented Reality (AR) tool needed to portray the product both in-store and online in 3D/360° visualization. It’s likely that your risk analysis tools will lead to the conclusion that printed designs represent the highest risk. These are the products that will eventually have to be put on deep clearance because of sold-out sizes or unpopular decoration. It is important to remember, that integrated Micro-Factory demand production does not fit for all apparel products, therefore; it is important to use the profit risk analysis tools to select just those silhouettes/SKU’s that fit in a demand sourcing profile.

 Micro-Merchandising is shorthand for integrating the advantages of the virtual inventory and demand production to focus on niches that can represent high velocity inventory sales focused on short trends or localized opportunities. Because production can match the velocity of sales trends without the risk of volume buying and long production lead times. Buyers and merchandisers can turn on a dime to take advantage of hot events or subjects that drive the market through today’s instant communication. An additional value of Micro-Merchandising is that retailers can focus on a more timely entry of fashion decorations that match local seasons and events. In this time of wild climate changes spring season and spring fashion do not arrive at every locale right on schedule.

Where Can I Learn About the Technology of Real-Time Demand Sourcing?

 In summary, finding the proper role and location for Micro-Manufacturing is ultimately as important as finding and adopting this new technology. Integrated micro manufacturing depends on building an understanding of virtual inventory and the tools that you use to build the appropriate and efficient demand to support the factory. Many of the vendors who provide the technology for micro-factories are beginning to understand that integrating their technology for demand production with the techniques and software that support demand sourcing is critical to the continued pursuit of domestic production and apparel profitability. In addition, some of the shows and conferences in 2019 are recognizing the importance of demand sourcing along with demand manufacturing. WTiN's Innovate Textile & Apparel Americas 2019 (ITA) on May 1 thru 3 will feature both Micro-Factory and the supporting itegration technology. This August, INFORMA’s SOURCING at MAGIC in Las Vegas will feature both micro-factories and training in the tools for Micro-Merchandising and Demand Sourcing. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn the details of risk assessment methods, style contact structures and AR product visualizations. Support is always available from AM4U, Inc. the leader in Integrated Micro-Factory and Real-time Demand Sourcing development. Contact bgrier@am4u.com check out the Principles of Demand Manufacturing and related videos at AM4U.com.


Friday, March 1, 2019

Rebuilding the Profit Structure of Apparel Sourcing


Reprint of an interview of Bill Grier written by Tansy Fall of WTIN for the new journal Textile 4.0 available at: http://textile40magazine.wtin.com/


Merchandisers can drive on-demand manufacturing
By Tansy Fall 26 February 2019
Moving from a traditional supply chain model to an on-demand workflow is not as easy as flicking a switch. But AM4U CEO Bill Grier believes there is a place in the supply chain for microfactories to make this transition easier. Tansy Fall reports.
Among the biggest challenges facing apparel manufacturers today is shortening time-to-market whilst simultaneously reducing inventory. This issue has risen to prominence thanks to both ecommerce and the changing demands of consumers, which has left the traditional textile and apparel supply chain in a quandary over how to keep up with demand.
On-demand manufacturing has the potential to solve both inventory and time-to-market issues. However, the lack of data sharing in the industry is seen to be stifling brands’ and retailers’ ability to connect orders with production. If businesses could better connect to the rest of the supply chain, brands and retailers would undoubtedly see dramatic improvements in sell-through (the percentage of a product that is sold by a retailer after being shipped by its supplier) and ultimately in-store and online profits.
This is where US-based AM4U (Apparel Made For You) comes in. The company is aiming to position itself as a leading consultant and supplier of microfactories and CEO Bill Grier is confident that there is a way to change the make-up of the supply chain, though admits it will be a gradual process. Grier has long worked in the digital printing space but has also been employed as a technical adviser to American apparel businesses. In 2012, Grier launched AM4U with the goal of demonstrating the capabilities of a demand-based integrated microfactory, for deployment in the apparel sector.
The company has since struggled to on-board the concept with brands and retailers and Grier says this is largely due to the mindset of the industry and its historic structure. “We are still mired in the industrial revolution,” he explains. “The mentality of investment, the mentality of purchase, and the mentality of stocking and inventory. We build factories for capacity […] and capacity is the antithesis of demand. […] The brands were not ready. Everyone visited us but nobody bought because they had no deployment plan.
“We do have three manufacturers right now where we have installed equipment and they have demand-based opportunities. [However] we have to balance the money involved between the manufacturer, the brand and the retailer. Because of the focus on cost, the manufacturer has been left in a position where they can’t make the kind of money they need. […] Once you focus on cost then you focus on labour, and you end up moving production.”
Most recently, the difficulties associated with working in an industry very much set in its ways has led AM4U to partner with event organisers UBM Fashion, to build three integrated microfactories on the show floor of Sourcing at Magic, which took place in February 2019. The company is endeavouring to showcase the customisation possibilities of a digital microfactory and encourage those in sourcing departments to think outside the box.
Away from the exhibition floor, Grier says he has also spent millions of dollars trying to develop a new way of making apparel, with each on-demand factory requiring an average investment of US$650,000 for set-up. From this, he has learnt that there are two key elements for success, which are now driving his business forward: integration across the supply chain and deployment planning.
Driving change
Considering supply chain integration and deployment together, Grier is of the opinion that digital manufacturing processes and microfactories will find their sweet spot if they are remote from traditional sourcing practices. He explains: “Buyers aren’t going to change. Their job description instructs them to find the lowest cost. [However] whilst buyers are responsible for cost, merchandisers are responsible for profit.”
The role of the merchandiser at a brand or retailer is to predict up-and-coming sales trends, and therefore to ensure maximum profitability. Merchandisers make certain that products appear in the right store, or online, at the appropriate time and in the correct quantities. Moreover, the merchandiser directly liaises with the distribution centre and often has access to data from the POS and the supply chain. This enables them to identify production and supply difficulties and deal with any problems or delays as they arise. As a result of this, the merchandiser is also well placed to make decisions about product quantities, however they are often bound by pre-ordered stock and are therefore also responsible for monitoring slow sellers and therefore price reductions.
“There are items where you need to have inventory, so buyers have a role there,” Grier continues. “But merchandisers deal with the distribution centres, not the manufacturers. And, you can drop a pollution-free microfactory into the distribution centre.”
Adding a microfactory to the supply chain at the distribution stage in the process is a relatively new concept for the industry. It is something that ecommerce marketplaces, such as Amazon, are implementing, however, as Grier notes: “Amazon is trying to put things in at their distribution point but it’s direct-to-garment. […] The problem is that Amazon is doing what we used to call just-in-time. This killed American manufacturing because it just moved inventory to the next level down.”
Moving inventory along the supply chain is not a solution. However, adding microfactories to distribution centres, well placed to leverage POS data, could be the appropriate first step towards digitalisation of the industry.
Mitigating risk
This is particularly applicable for high-risk products such as prints. White or black garments still lend themselves to being manufactured in bulk, responsibility for which remains with the buyer. But for those products that are more experimental, be that in colour or design, on-demand production can allow for garments to be bought before they are made; limiting the risk the brand or retailer takes in producing them. If they are successful, manufacturing capacity can then be increased.
AM4U currently has microfactories that are being tested by a handful of brands in the US. The results of this will be first realised in August and this testing will then go on for another year. “It has a direct connection with 2375 stores,” Grier adds. “They are at risk, and they have a huge pain at the moment, so they have to change. They’re therefore willing to try this. Retailers need to develop new technology to evaluate how they calculate product risk.”
This test is an extension of another AM4U project. Grier continues: “We ran 100 of a major retailer’s stores on a test basis. The question was, how many [products] do we have to make to cover their entire licenced design children’s pyjamas? How many did we have to make a day? […] The most we ever had to make in one day was 174.”
This assessment highlights the validity of the microfactory concept, provided retailers and brands can be moved towards an on-demand sourcing structure. “We began to realise that the biggest issue was that nobody was ready to give us [the manufacturer] POS data. […] The manufacturers can’t change until the point where the money enters the system changes.” Therefore, the microfactory needs to be close to the end consumer, where the money enters the value chain.
One AM4U customer based in Los Angeles, US, has embraced this microfactory concept and has successfully set up partnerships with brands. The business is a leggings manufacturer, and the owner is able to pay its workers US$20/hr, Grier says, selling a pair of leggings for US$32. Grier explains that the business has ‘silhouette discipline’ meaning that the design of the leggings can be varied and easily changed whilst the tried and tested shape of the leggings remains the same.
Moreover, Grier highlights the kind of contract the microfactory has with the brands. He says that whilst the brand the microfactory works with commits to buying X number of leggings a year, they do not specify the design at the point of order. The design can therefore be changed at any time, using digital technologies, and the microfactory is given access to the brand’s POS data in order to guide its manufacturing decisions. Grier says that the mircrofactory’s “sell-through rate is 80%, compared to the average sell-through rate for women’s apparel, which is only about 23% at retail.” 
Regarding the importance of the supply chain having access to POS data, Grier draws on experience from his family’s involvement in food company General Foods, which was bought by Kraft in 1990. Grier references the impact the barcode had on the grocery industry, providing the ability to track buying patterns and apply this directly to stock quantities and production needs. He says that this same approach could be applied in the apparel industry if the retailers would release the POS data upstream and that the ‘sell-by dates’ formula that informs inventory in the food sector, should be applied to sourcing and inventory control in the clothing sector. Due to trends in the fashion industry, garments also have a sell-by date and, whilst brands and retailers are aware of this, which often results in them discounting items, they are not currently managing their inventory and supply chains in order to ensure the right number of garments are produced that can be sold by the ‘sell-by date’. Grier adds: “Sales should be based on promotion and not on clearance.”
The future of the factory
In the creation of microfactories, two areas of the supply chain that have been very separate for the majority of the industry’s history are united: “Colouration has been separated from cutting and sewing for so long that they don’t have an understanding of it,” Grier comments.
This poses a big challenge to manufacturers or brands that implement microfactories as processes are being connected that haven’t had to interact with one another before. And, connection between the textile manufacturing element of the supply chain and the apparel manufacturing element is not the only communication problem. The design process needs to better involve information from the manufacturing process as well. Grier says: “Up until the middle of last year, not one design software available could see directly into a RIP [raster image processor, which interprets and renders a design into a pattern of dots for digital printing].”
Technology also clearly needs to advance to achieve the seamless production processes that the implementation of microfactories require to be successful. With the concept of microfactories at the distribution centre, responsibility for investment could finally be brought to the table of those that hold the most capital for investment, the brands.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

RETAIL APPAREL TECHNOLOGY AND THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

The time has come to shift the focus of the apparel trades from developing new manufacturing technology to the adoption of today’s technology in a new paradigm of sourcing. 2019 will be a critical year in the adoption of digital textile printing. Hundreds of companies have spent countless millions of dollars developing high-speed digital printing, visual textile cutting, sophisticated production software and now we are even seeing the initial entry of robotic sewing. Although, these companies have reached new heights in technology and sustainability they have done this by climbing the innovation stairway in their own silo. Few of the innovators are concerned with the fact that knitting, weaving, coloring, printing, cutting or sewing are just part of a complex choreography of different technologies required to produce a finished textile or apparel product. Because of this isolation, the companies have often failed to create the integration needed for a complete supply system. Building these significant technological machines and then failing to connect them is much like a village without roads or communications. This lack of internal connection whether in the form of a demand micro-factory or a mass-producing digital factory is but one of the major roadblocks that need to be faced in 2019.

Companies need to seriously invest time and people power in using their attendance and participation in the glut of technology shows and the show-and-tell conferences to talk to each other about seamless integration. Creating communication standards and compatible software along with a holistic view of the entire manufacturing process will allow potential customers to visualize their entire expense and the huge profitability that is clearly on the horizon. Over the last 26 years of advocating demand-based production for individual consumers or replenishing products sold at retail I've seen hundreds of entrepreneurial dreams crushed. Potential customers were sold a piece equipment or software that was not compatible or didn't match their specific plan. There is no blame to attach to this problem companies need to sell what they make but, they must recognize that these products do not stand alone they need to interface in an entire system. Because the technologies at each station in the complex track of production are different, companies need to use shows and conferences as points of cross-communication. Failure to strategically understand this market will extend the time required for companies to realize the return on their investment in digital technologies. Companies that understand this requirement for mechanical integration and the seamless transfer of digital product information will be the first adopted by the industry. Whether companies take this path through M&A or through the much less costly approach of education and cross functional analysis and partnerships, the goal for 2019 is clear, the industry must focus on adoption of digital technologies and it's functional partner of demand manufacturing.

 A second roadblock in the path to adoption is that there is no road to the source of funds. The technology companies have built a beautiful edifice focused on manufacturing, but there is no road for the brands or the retailers to approach this paradigm changing structure. In fact the retailers who deal directly with consumers that generate the funds have been left out of this technology revolution that offers so much promise for the manufacturers. This is more than just a technology disconnect, the players don't even speak the same language. The printer manufacturers are still keeping score in square meters per hour while the retailers only want to hear about sales per square foot. Although consumers have access to inventories through the Internet much of the visual and virtual capabilities of the new technology are not connected to the retailer or e-tailer at the B2C level. If one tenth of the funds that have been expended on the technological developments of digital color, visual recognition and repetitive automation had been spent on AR for the consumers or AI for the buyers, apparel retailers would be thriving today. This year shows like SOURCING at MAGIC will begin the difficult task of bringing together retail, brand and manufacturers to demonstrate the use of AI and AR in integrating demand manufacturing, demand sourcing and demand merchandising to create a profitable domestic enterprise. Our country can only reconstitute domestic manufacturing and revitalize domestic retail by creating more profits in the apparel trades. This will not be accomplished through a focus on finding cheap labor and lowering cost of goods. That can only result in lower quality, poor working conditions and more pollution. The US is still a nation of consumers whether in-store or online the key to greater profits is to make what we sell and sell what we make. Today we risk guessing what will sell 12 months in advance and then selling only about 25% at the retail price projected. There is no way cost-cutting will solve this endemic structural weakness. Import, discount and dump is not a viable business plan. We need to spend dollars and time connecting what sells directly with what we make. The focus needs to be on including the consumer in the visual experience of choosing garments then using AR to try on their choices. This information and the ultimate purchase can be much more accurate than 12 month projections. Feeding an AI system real-time sales data that drives a network of demand manufacturing that produces targeted replenishment is much more profitable than clearance discounting. This is not a dream far off in the future our actual tests show a small micro-factory could deliver five day delivery to replenish the actual sales of licensed printed children's sleepwear to over 200 stores. As the bulk of our clothing gets more casual and more colorful we are at a crossroads to decide whether import, discount and dump or targeted demand merchandising driving demand manufacturing is the path to a sustainable future for this recoverable segment of our economy.

Some companies are trying to bridge the gap between technology silos and a few are even reaching out to add merchandising into their portfolio. Some like EFI and Dover are adding by M&A. Others like Tukatech are building from within and focused on designers and service centers. Gerber Technologies is using both M&A and technology partnerships to connect with both printing RIPs and consumer online software. Retail and brand customers will see some of this merchandising and adoption technology at SOURCING at MAGIC, February 4-7 in the South Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center.