The fashion industry has always prided itself on being cutting-edge. With technologies like the Internet of Things and analytics, apparel brands are now able to pivot more easily and frequently as styles change.
Apparel makers “scrub social media, bringing up styles based on what people are wearing,” says Paul Magel, president of application solutions and technology outsourcing at Computer Generated Solutions, which sells software designed for the apparel manufacturing industry. “You can react to those trends when you can [change production plans] much faster.”
New York-based CGS was founded in 1984 and in recent years has focused on developing and deploying software technologies that digitize apparel shop factory floors—right down to the needle on a sewing machine.
In fact, the company unveiled a partnership in May with Juki, a Japanese sewing machine manufacturer, to install CGS’ software on the devices, effectively making them “smart.” Updates can be sent and changes can be sent to fabric batches in real-time while data from the machines are easily accessed for up-to-date analysis.
“You used to have to convince folks that technology is an enabler of the business, not just a necessary evil,” Magel says, reflecting on the apparel industry’s embrace of new technologies. “They now look to technology as required; it’s a must.”
Overall, the appeal of these innovations is to make both man and machine more efficient, even at manual tasks such as sewing. One CGS customer, General Sportswear, reported an 11 percent increase in efficiency at its facility in Nicaragua, according to a case study provided by CGS. General Sportswear, which makes private-label denim and other apparel for major retailers, says CGS’s software enables it to spot sewing and cutting errors and machine malfunctions in real time.
For example, the company says the factory typically used an “end-of-day” batch processing system to assess 800-plus employees, who are paid by the piece. That manual process required the collecting of tickets, which then needed to be manually scanned at shifts’ end. Using CGS’s software, General Sportswear says “supervisors gained access to real-time production data. What used to take two to three hours at end of day to do a manual count, is now available in real time.”
In addition to increased efficiencies and better management of employees, technological advancements on the shop floor can help brands accomplish another key facet in the e-commerce era: customization.
Shoppers want what they want when they want it. And so, legacy retailers and online stores alike have focused on artificial intelligence and other technologies to better find the customers who are looking to buy what they sell. But that trend also applies to the factory shop floor. Whether it’s keeping up with the sometimes flighty whims in fashion design or a sudden shift in consumer demand, apparel makers can only adjust if the manufacturing process on the front end is as agile as sales and marketing at the point of sale.
“You can track the work in progress,” Magel says. “You don’t have to wait for the order to be finished at the end of the line.”
If demand drops or shifts, apparel makers can make adjustments on their end in order to match those customer expectations, he adds.
Magel says this kindle of nimble manufacturing is going to become even more important as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) expands its own line of private-label attire. Of Amazon’s 74 private labels, 66 offer apparel, according to a Coresight study cited by trade publication RetailDive.
And it’s not just the Seattle-based retail giant’s foray into producing its own apparel that creates competition for other clothing makers. By virtue of its platform and all of the information on it—which products sit in our carts unbought, our search history, user reviews—Amazon has a unique window into what we want to buy. The company’s recommendation algorithms could just as easily point to an Amazon-made shirt as one by a traditional retailer.
Large retailers like Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and Target (NYSE: TGT) have also recently beefed up their own private-label offerings. “A lot of retailers are doing more design and sourcing and building out their own private brands,” he says.
Following Amazon’s lead, traditional retailers are morphing to become more like platforms, both selling their own merchandise as well as that made by vendors. Making that transition, however, requires a blending of operational lines. “There are no pure-play retailers and wholesalers now,” Magel says. “You have to participate in every channel.”
To that end, he says he believes that technologies like those sold by CGS can help these traditionally separate operations communicate with each other. “Traditional retailers don’t speak wholesale,” he says.