Few organizations truly understand what it takes to ‘go digital’
As an apparel maker and seller, I would like you to explore and answer this question. Are you a smart organisation or SO? Are you prepared to be one in near or distant future? Why should we even bother asking such a question? Why is it relevant? ‘Digital’ is more than a buzzword now. It is a mandatory requirement for organisations to stay in the new game. However, few organisations truly understand what it takes to ‘go digital’. Transformation involves much more than setting up a digital infrastructure and requires more than the ability to enter into a virtual collaboration with other partners. Organisations need to become `smart’, i.e. knowledge driven, internetworked, dynamically adaptive to new organisational forms and practices, learning as well as agile in their ability to create and exploit the opportunities offered by the digital economy.
More than anything, digital is a ‘mindset’, which needs to pervade an organisation through its every pore for it truly transform, show its full effect.
What is a Smart Organisation or SO?
Let’s understand the main features of a such ‘smart’ organisation. This definition of a smart organisation draws from a book published in 2009 Transforming Clothing Production into a demand driven, knowledge based high tech industry by Walter, Lutz, George Alexander Kartsunis, Stepfano Carosio.
Here it goes. SO is based on networking at different levels: technological, organisational and learning through knowledge acquisition and sharing. It is focused on exploitation of data / knowledge as its competitive advantage rather than on owning physical assets. It moves away from strict organisational hierarchies towards a more effective and efficient pooling in of skills and resources through cross functional teams which come together for shared common goals as and when required. Authority is established based on competence and guided by trust and integrity, rather than traditional hierarchical structures. Collaboration is the key here to success. There is a clear recognition that success can be achieved by bringing in skills and resources through collaboration from external sources if necessary. It is an organisation which is fully committed to empowering and leveraging people through an entrepreneurial culture.
An extended smart organisation (xSO) is a smart organisation that develops its business in a network of loosely tied companies that cooperate as if they were a single virtual company. Idea is that in global environment competition is no longer a question of one company against another company but of one network against another network. (Walter, 2009)
To become a smart garment organisation, it must be able to leverage and integrate several technologies into its way of working. A convergence of several technologies working towards aligned goals is what brings true transformation.
Let’s imagine an apparel value chain which gathers data about its customers’ interests and behaviors, values, lifestyle, habits, needs through Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Serves up those needs in real time enabled by a backend supply chain through web / cloud based collaboration tools such as product lifecycle management (PLM), photorealistic simulation in product development like 3D / 4D CAD / virtual prototyping, uses smart innovative materials (Shape Memory Materials – SMMs) for converting prototypes into products, which continue to gather user data throughout the product’s lifetime. It then uses Augmented Reality (AR) and / or Virtual Reality(VR) and Body Scanning Technology to give an enhanced customer experience, help reduce friction between customers and their purchase decisions and end up servicing their customer’s needs in real time as accurately as possible.
This is not an imaginary science fiction any longer. This is happening today and now. What is needed is just a convergence of all these tech pieces to come together and work seamlessly together towards aligned goals of better serving the customer.
We look at some of the advances on various fronts that our generation is witnessing.
Robotic 3D Garment Assembly and Automatic material handling – where do we stand today?
Sewing technology is becoming capable of creating an entire garment autonomously. Clothes-making robot – was developed at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center in a process that began a decade ago. The company has launched LOWRY, one of the latest ‘sewbots’ or sewing robots. Secret lies in incorporation of a camera so that machine can take photos while it sews, to control its movements better. Invention has already seduced the North American retail chain Walmart, to invest US$2 million to fund its development.
At 2016 end, Adidas launched its first range of running shoes made by robots. Production process uses 3D printing and minimal human intervention. Same result can be achieved with just 136 people rather than 1000, which has enabled the brand to shift some of its production from Asia (where 55 per cent of its products are currently made) back to its native Germany.
ILO report warns that ‘sewbots’ could be four times more profitable than their human counterparts by 2020. If overall cost works out lower than offshoring, production could be transferred from factories in places like Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) to sites in others like California. ILO has already called on Asian countries to take measures to avoid massive unemployment and very real prospect of a step backward in their development process, recommending they take advantage of the opportunity to change their export-oriented model and to start selling to their own middle classes.
A big headway has been made in smart materials. Shape Memory Polymers which respond to external stimuli such as temperature, pH, chemicals and light in a pre-determined way are being tested in textile / apparel applications. A study by George K Stylios tested intelligent curtains which can act in a certain way when exposed to certain temperature or light.
Various new and unique functions containing textiles have been developed such as luminescent textiles, textile displays, emotion sensing dresses, self-cleaning textiles, temperature-regulated textiles, and self-moving textiles.
Stiffening procedures are also being experimented with to enable soft materials like fabric easier to handle. A notable development on this front has been done by inventor Jon Zornow via his Sewbo.
Sewbot avoids hurdles faced by robots in manipulating limp flexible fabrics by temporarily stiffening fabrics, allowing off-the-shelf industrial robots to easily build garments from rigid cloth, just as if they were working with sheet metal. Fabric panels can be easily molded and welded before being permanently sewn together.
Water-soluble stiffener is removed at the end of manufacturing process with a simple rinse in hot water, leaving a soft, fully assembled piece of clothing. Stiffener can then be recovered for reuse. We spoke with the inventor in person and he is willing to show the demo at Bangladesh Fashionology Summit for industry folks to see.
Alternate fabric joining methods are being innovated upon. PFFAF showcased their ultrasonic welding machines. Ultrasonic welding with Seamsonic is a modern, innovative and economic alternative and complementary to conventional sewing technology. If assembling of laminates, clothing fabrics with high share of polymer and technical nonwovens is required, use of Seamsonic is first choice. There is no needle and thread involved here like in traditional sewing machines.
Virtual Prototyping using Digital Photorealistic Simulation techniques – How far has industry adopted to new technology?
Several players have been making steady progress in virtual prototyping for apparel industry. Long-standing pain point for our industry has been long drawn, time consuming and costly physical samples / prototypes that are the norm in bringing product from design concept to actual product to end consumer. We have come a long way from CAD / CAM and 2D patternmaking to sophisticated 3D, virtual prototyping software available in the industry.
Technological advancements from leaders like Lectra, Tukatech, EFI Optitex, Gerber, Browswear and Visual Assyst make it possible to reduce or in some cases eliminate need for making physical samples by providing 3D simulation and virtual prototyping tools. What’s remarkable is that these services / tools are now being offered via cloud platforms at reasonable subscription models thus reducing the cost of technology acquisition and adoption.
Once the design and product development process are digitalized and integrated with product lifecycle management (PLM) not only within organisation but across multiple stakeholders allowing for true collaboration to take place, possibilities for extended Smart Garment Organisations to reap the rewards of technology are endless. We are happy to inform you that technology giants like Tukatech and Lectra have agreed to join our upcoming fashiontech event Bangladesh Fashionology Summit on 12th Feb 2018 to share their knowledge and inspiration with our apparel industry.
Mass Customization and on demand manufacturing will not just be experimental business models but actual thriving businesses creating much lesser waste and posing much lesser threat to environment in the process of being profitable by serving consumer needs driven by technology and knowledge. TC2 will talk about the global drivers of automation and implementation at our show. So do make sure you are there to listen in and learn from the top experts from around the globe.
Cross functional teams collaborating will be the norm in bringing the products to market faster, better and more accurate in terms of meeting customer needs.
However, for industry to really move into a high-tech era, a marriage must happen between creative / fashion design community and engineering and technical skills community.
Cross functional worlds need to come together and develop hybrid skills. People who have sound understanding of fashion business and design aesthetics combined with solid technical knowledge, are the ones who will eventually take the industry to next level of digitally enabled, demand driven, and knowledge based high-tech industry.
The writer is the Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Managing Director of Denim Expert Ltd.