There can be a reluctance to trust a digital garment when technology decides the look, fit and patterns
Digitalising apparel supply chains is disruptive but it also presents opportunities – with the real value coming from those that are nimble, agile and smarter, as opposed to just being faster.
Cloud computing, 3D, Internet of Things (IoT), virtual and augmented reality, Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, predictive analytics, big data analytics, robotics, Software as a Service (SaaS), end-to-end digital connectivity…these are just some of the new technologies being implemented by the textile and apparel industry right now. All can be seen as disruptive – which has a negative connotation – but also bring progress and opportunities.
“If we look back in time, we have had many things in life that have proved disruptive but provided progress,” Lena Lim, chief commercial officer at Browzwear, explained on a recent webinar for the 3D Tech Festival organised by fit specialist Alvanon and its apparel knowledge hub Motif.
“When you look at where the fashion industry was in the 1900s compared to where it is today, what do you see as the only difference? Perhaps some equipment, but more than that it is just a difference between a black and white picture and where we are today. Can we say we have actually made progress in our supply chain, in our manufacturing abilities?”
Technology “has allowed us to go faster, a plane has enabled clothes to be shipped across the world faster. But what it has really given us is this true cost of fashion: 11,000 pieces of clothes are thrown to the landfill every hour. So if technology is disruptive, what does it mean for us and the way the industry has been progressing in the last 100 years, if not more?”
Digital supply chains
Lim says the priority is not for the apparel industry supply chain to become faster, but for it to be more nimble and agile. “That is what a digital supply chain is supposed to give us.”
But she adds: “In actual fact, the supply chain has to be driven by the consumer. And when we look at what consumer engagement is driving today, it’s astonishing. People are buying online, but as a result of buying online they are demanding more consumer experiences online as well. They are speaking about customisation, made to measure, mass personalisation, digital try-on and so on.
“Whether we like it or not, this mega trend where the consumer is driving, is going to affect the supply chain. Just being faster for faster’s sake is not a real digital supply chain. But being more nimble will allow for a supply chain that can position itself efficiently as each company’s business model changes, in relation to what the consumer is demanding of your brand.”
Lim says the key is to develop a smarter supply chain, not just a digital one, looking beyond Industry 4.0 and Industry 5.0. This can include using blockchain and RFID for transparency and visibility, virtual and augmented reality for privacy, 3D for sustainability and the circular economy.
“The new consumer of today is concerned about many of these areas and they want to know they are buying a product from someone who is concerned about what is happening in sustainability,” Lim explains. “That is something we need to think about as we apply technology.”
Another part to consider is how the raw material is sourced, how the garment is designed and recycled. “Brands and retailers are very conscious that consumers want to have transparency. So we have to think about the circular economy even as we think about the digital supply chain.”
The opportunity awaits
Lim believes redefining each company’s role within the supply chain is important. “As a manufacturer, if the client wins then you win. For a brand, if the consumer feels proud of the product they’re buying, then you win.” Different technologies can help with this connectivity, such as IoT, virtual reality and AI.
“Not one company is going to change the entire industry. It’s going to come from many many new technologies. It’s exciting what our partnerships are doing, and all of us collectively coming together.”
Disruption also brings opportunities. “Without technology, being agile is going to be a real stretch for us,” Lim says. “We also need to remember agility doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a continuous exercise. And as we move towards agility we need to stop, think and change. It’s not just about speed.”
The choice for brands and suppliers, Lim says, is whether to continue as if nothing has changed, or address issues like low profit margins, sustainability and inaccurate fit.
“I feel we, as an industry, really need to think about how we change the industry completely, whether you are a big corporate, an independent, or a new company. Doing things differently is the beginning of it. And there are technologies out there like virtual tech, 3D, and virtual try on, to enable this to happen.”
Lim uses virtual garments as an example. “How do we trust it when technology is deciding the look, fit and patterns? The reality is, the industry needs to change and if we can trust this digital garment for making the print decisions, for making a new print execution, whether it’s a foil or vintage print, just understanding how the garments will come together based on the assets you have.”
Lim says more customers are using 3D technology as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with a lack of physical samples due to the closure of photography studios and logistical challenges driving this change.
She continues: “Besides trusting the garment, what are the new things we need? Supply chain partners, you are the backbone of our industry – but there is a wall where digitally things need to happen. Ensuring supply chain partners are digitally enabled is a big part.
“It’s not just about buying software or looking at it from a tool perspective; it’s a complete mindset change. You can bring value to your brands when you onboard software, but you can bring the exponential value they need when you are a collaborative partner.”