The latest edition of The Economist includes its Technology Quarterly and features a report that should be of interest to apparel focused supply chains, especially specialty retailers. The article titled Made to measure (paid subscription) reports that more advanced robotics applied to fabric sewing automation are becoming closer to reality, making it possible for fashion designers to be able to take advantage of time-to-market or consumer fashion hot trend market opportunities within specific geographic markets and/or regions.

The report observes that there have been many attempts to automate sewing. While some processes can now be carried out autonomously: the cutting of fabric, for instance, and sometimes sewing buttons or pockets, it has been rather difficult to develop a machine in which fabric goes in one end and finished garments, such as jeans and T-shirts, come out the other.

Profiled is Atlanta based SoftWear Automation, a textile-equipment producer founded by a former professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which is tackling the challenge of automated sewing in a number of ways. The company was awarded a $1.3 million research contract from an R&D agency for the U.S. Department of Defense in efforts to provide more U.S. based suppliers for military uniforms.

The report notes that thus far, use of high-speed photography to capture up to 1000frames per second, coupled with software, is addressing the challenge of correctly positioning and sewing fabric. Materials handling system termed LOWRY has further been developed to pick-up fabric and feed appropriate sections to sewing operations, or other machines which might cut, stitch or carry out other finishing tasks.

Noted is that while the first LOWRY based system will be delivered to a U.S. based factory later this year, commercial versions capable of automating more difficult garment production tasks will not be ready until sometime in 2017.

However, from our Supply Chain Matters lens, the implications to global apparel focused supply chains are indeed significant. Industry players are well-aware of the current elongated lead-times from clothing design to full production at some offshore, lower-cost region. Opportunities to respond to hot consumer buying trends are often missed. Visionary firm Inditex and its Zara retail outlets, that couple a locally based, fast-response design and supply chain capability has long provided the industry benchmark for end-to-end supply chain agility.

While full automation of the process of garment production may well remain dependent on some human worker participation, this report related to the ongoing maturity of robotic based technology tackling such tasks may well provide the impetus for a shift toward more locally sourced apparel production catering to specific geographical or local fashion needs and trends.  As the Economist observes, while lower-cost, lower-margin apparel may continue to be sourced in low-cost labor regions, there are now emerging opportunities to source designer and other specialty apparel in local regions, which can tilt the scale for time-to-market, cost and margin competitiveness.

Bob Ferrari