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.
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.
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.