Fast fashion is all about speed. Shorter lead times are crucial. Gone are the days when companies used to work on four to eight seasons.
Today, fast fashion brands are selling new collections to their customers every week. On the other hand, seasonal collections would take six to eight months from the design concept stage to the final product ready for production, combined with another two to three months before the product would hit shop floors.
We are talking about a lead time of almost a year from concept to customer – this is the past, and no longer sustainable to serve today’s customers.
In this digital era, technology is now enabling customers to even ask Amazon’s Alexa, the digital assistant, to search for that “trending” dress they saw the other day.
AI enabled Alexa can not only provide you with the most relevant choices, but can also give you some style tips and place the order for you without even needing you needing to key in your credit card number. This is now.
How will Bangladesh apparel makers continue to stay relevant in this digital era? Can we continue to operate on the old model? Be the dinosaurs in the digital world?
We need to shift gears, shift mindsets, shift work processes, and embrace digital transformation from top to toe.
Across the entire value chain, digitalization presents the transformative opportunity to connect the different silos of the supply chain – design, product development, production through logistics and finally to the end customer.
Today, it is technically possible to have a “single view of the customer” – to design products suited to each individual customer’s preferences, and work with suppliers to transform the product from digital design to real product — all within a matter of days.
Companies are already making exciting headway in their digital transformation journey, yet only a few are getting it right and are reaping the rewards.
The key lies in shifting the focus from cheapest source supply to demand focus, increasing the speed to the market, being flexible and responsive, and truly re-engineering the entire value chain and processes from end to end.
At each stage of the value chain, digitalization has the potential to increase speed, cut costs, minimize risk, improve efficiency, and better utilize resources.
During the design, or what is termed as the pre-production phase in the apparel manufacturing world, one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to cutting costs and lead times are the numerous pre-production sample rejection and approval cycles.
The process is time-consuming, wasteful, and costly due to the numerous physical samples made, shipped overseas to buyers for comments, rejected, remade, and reshipped — resulting in a considerable loss of time, money, manpower and resources.
Digital technologies and advancements made in virtual prototyping and photorealistic simulation can come to the rescue. In recent times, many technology providers have come up with sophisticated software solutions that are easy to use and offer “true to life” representations of samples in virtual form.
Simulated realistic visualization and sampling can eliminate the need for making actual physical samples to judge the look and feel of the product, resulting in fewer physical prototypes and a shorter product-development phase.
When we come to the production and manufacturing stage, digital technologies can enable apparel manufacturing to have a single unified view of the entire production, as the physical world is seamlessly connected digitally.
From cutters, to spreaders, to plotters, to sewing systems – machines will be smart and able to communicate with each other.
This digitization of manufacturing is termed as “Industry 4.0,” the fourth overhaul of manufacturing, after lean, outsourcing, and automation. Some call it “smart manufacturing” and McKinsey and Company refers to it as “a confluence of trends and technologies [that] promises to reshape the way things are made.”
Digitalization allows for similar efficiency, transparency, connectedness and collaboration in the logistics and distribution phase of the apparel value chain.
RFID, EDI, robots, autonomous vehicles, and blockchain technology are all presenting opportunities for a single view of the product from cradle to grave and probably even in its re-birth in the form of a recycled or upcycled product – such is the power of digital.
The challenges of going digital
With regards to the digital prototyping, the primary concerns have been around the soft nature of the fabric, drape, human body shape etc. which the designers believe are better evaluated in person than in “virtual” or “digital” form.
In apparel manufacturing, the adoption of smart machines is challenged by the accompanying lack of skill and digital talent needed to understand the data analytics, IT components, and interdependence of all components that make the machine intelligent.
The resistance to adopt new technologies is also an outcome of the crazy busy lives that the existing people involved in apparel industry lead. There is immense pressure to deliver samples on time, develop product lines, and adhere to deadlines for multiple styles being developed.
Professionals are hard pressed to deliver on their job requirements and they often do not have the time to learn how to work with and operate new digital technology.
Learning new skills in digital systems and processes requires time and a new approach to the entire process itself.
The other problem with digital transformation is that it needs to happen in a holistic way throughout the apparel value chain. It cannot be that only the buyers become digitally savvy while their suppliers are still operating on old models, or vice versa.
The entire value chain is highly interconnected. A problem at one stage of the production process will inevitably have negative consequences on the rest of the value chain.
Brands, buyers, retailers, suppliers – the entire eco-system needs to come together and re-align their strategies towards digital transformation of the entire industry.
The different parts must come together in a collaborative, transparent fashion in order for the true benefits of digitalization to be reaped by all involved.
There is a crying need for the stake-holders across the entire value chain to gather under one roof and discuss strategies, methodologies, and solutions in a transparent, collaborative, and mutually beneficial ways.
The Bangladesh Fashionology Summit is a step in the right direction to create such a meeting ground for top leaders, thinkers, innovators, digital technology disruptors, and policy-makers from global fashion industry.
Our theme is “digitalization – the next destination,” which will hold critical conversations around topics of crucial importance.
Join the conversation with us this February that will re-define how the C-Suite, senior leadership of the global apparel industry thinks about transformation in the digital era.
Mostafiz Uddin is the founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Denim Expo. He is the managing director of Denim Expert Limited.