Chasing cheap labor in low-cost sourcing countries may have bought the apparel industry time in terms of embracing automation, but with on-demand apparel production gaining importance and automation tech advancing in accordance with the industry’s needs—the pace of adoption will quicken in the coming years.
Already, according to a McKinsey & Company report launched at the recent Sourcing Journal Summit in New York City, the automotive industry has a sevenfold lead over apparel when it comes to uptake in industrial robots, and electronics is four times more automated than apparel.
“Whereas some garment manufacturers have started investing in automation, neither automation nor advanced manufacturing have been a priority for the buyers at mass-market apparel brands and retailers,” McKinsey said.
That’s owed, at least in part, to low labor costs in core Asian sourcing markets, and a focus on traditional efficiency improvements and leaning the supply chain rather than automating it, McKinsey said. It’s also because fabrics have long proven challenging for bots to handle. But that has already begun to change, with solutions for full automation in sewing certain fabrics emerging as market ready.
And there’s a much bigger case for the adoption of automation than simply improving the production process.
“For certain products, automation will not only make nearshoring more attractive for U.S. and European mass-market apparel brands and retailers, but it will also make onshoring to the U.S. economically viable in the future, McKinsey noted.
But for many manufacturers, it’s a matter of where to begin and which technologies are best for the business.
According to McKinsey, there are five that stand to have the most promising impact on apparel manufacturing.
Naturally, as the most labor-intensive step in apparel manufacturing, with sewing accounting for more than half of the total labor time per garment, advancements in automation for sewing will have the greatest impact.
“The potential for labor reduction is highly dependent on product type and design—as much as up to 90 percent of the sewing of simple garments can be automated,” McKinsey said. “While there are a variety of different semi-automation solutions, SoftWear Automation is currently on the forefront of fully automated sewing and many others are making investments.”
After sewing, picking and packing in warehouses in the next most labor-intensive part of apparel production, and also the most error-prone.
“Robotics in intralogistics throughout the production process as well as warehousing can halve labor intensity, reduce processing time and errors, and improve worker ergonomics,” McKinsey said. “Technologies in the market today include overhead garment-on-hanger systems, which utilize the previously empty overhead space in a warehouse to store, sort, and pick display-ready garments, and self-driving warehouse vehicles that can transport items as well as load and unload washing machines and dryers.”
Though it may not be first to mind for companies seeking out automation technologies, new technologies in gluing and bonding could allow manufacturers to skip sewing altogether while adding functionality for performance garments.
“The times when only outdoor brands used adhesive technology to improve water resistance are gone. Gluing today is also used in the high-end design segment,” the report noted. “Combined with robotics, gluing and bonding have the potential to significantly reduce labor and increase the production speed.”
Knitting technology advancements, whether 3-D or computer controlled, will make the best case for customization, and companies like Ministry of Supply have already tapped into what co-founder and CEO Aman Advani calls “print-knit,” producing sweaters on-demand for consumers in its Boston, Mass. store.
Advanced knitting technologies, according to McKinsey, make knit garments more versatile, and also increase the garment’s commercial value—which may motivate apparel companies to embrace more knits over wovens.
“Nike’s Flyknit product line, for instance, uses a computerized knitting process that has reduced material waste by 80 percent,” McKinsey noted. “Knitting innovation also supports single-item production and new factory-in-store concepts.”
Because of its already low labor requirement, automating steps in the apparel production like digital printing or laser finishing, could make it possible for apparel companies to wholly nearshore their finishing process.
“Digital printing can reduce labor by up to 70 percent and abrasives by up to 90 percent,” McKinsey said. “Levi’s laser technology drastically cuts finishing time for a pair of jeans.”