Fast-fashion business models, vertical integration, robust inventory management systems and other supply-chain strategies are offered as a solution to what ails the fashion retail industry today. The industry’s challenges are summarized by Alper Sen in International Journal of Production Economics, “The fashion industry has short product life cycles, tremendous product variety, volatile and unpredictable demand, and long and inflexible supply processes.”
Current efforts focused on fixing fashion’s current supply chain, like inventory management and demand forecasting, are only a band aid, providing temporary relief but no lasting cure. Li & Fung executive director Rick Darling said as much at the Mazars 2017 Consumer Products Forum in NYC in November, “Amazon quantities, Kohl’s quantities, Macy’s quantities, are all coming down per style and their SKU counts are all broadening, some more extreme than others. And that’s not being driven by their choice to control inventory, it’s being driven by consumers’ demand to get things faster, quicker and more unique than they ever had in the past.”
While these solutions are much needed, they still fall short of getting the right clothes, in the right styles, with the right fit to the right customer where and when he or she wants it. Even reducing cycle times to 4-to-6 weeks from design concept to instore availability, as reportedly Zara, ASOS and BooBoo have done, isn’t fast enough when customers have moved on.
The result, as anyone in the fashion industry knows, is massive amounts of excess inventory that customers don’t want unless it is marked down deeply enough to sell or if not, it becomes waste. According to the Guardian, potential product waste accounts for 3-5% of every fashion factory’s production, which may add up to between 80-100b garments per year globally.
The cost of the industry’s inefficiencies are evident everywhere, but largely incalculable. It’s an industry ripe for fundamental disruption and Palaniswamy “Raj” Rajan, chairman and ceo of Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation, is bringing it. Its patented Sewbot, a sewing robot, takes fashion automation to the next level, what Rajan calls digital manufacturing.
“The fundamental problem in the fashion retail industry today is the wrong product at the wrong time and an oversupply of it,” Rajan says. “To produce that product the industry looks overseas. They’re chasing cheap labor.” But that search for low-cost manufacturing is unsustainable, he adds, since the growing middle-class in countries like China and India are driving labor costs up.
“If we can manufacture goods in the US at the same costs as overseas, and the bulk of that cost is in labor, then why wouldn’t you manufacture here?” he asks, which would in turn sharply reduce the time it takes for goods to get from the factory to the retail sales floor and into the customers’ hands. “Through our technology, we are enabling a local supply chain.”
More made-in-America clothing is exactly what US consumers want, but so too does the US government which specifies all service uniforms be made “fiber to finish with US materials and labor,” Rajan says. A Defense Department Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant along with a grant from Walmart Foundation provided the original funding to get the company started, following years of research and development at Georgia Tech. CTW Venture Partners, which stands for Change The World and where Rajan is managing partner, added an additional $7.5 million to its coffers.
SoftWear first shipped commercial products in 2015 to producers of high-volume basics for the home, like towels and bath mats. Since then the SoftWear engineers have developed capabilities to tackle more advanced sewing operations, including t-shirts, much of the sewing for a pair of jeans, and now footwear uppers. But these he describes as baby steps.
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