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Planning for a new digital world

By Tony Whitfield, Writer, MCL News & Media, 30 Jan 2018


Once the most standardised part of the textile production supply chain, where most garment operations looked the same, today’s industry is a fast-moving, multi-faceted sector, which requires ever more precise planning along every step of the way.


Nowadays, each phase of the garment supply chain must smoothly interact with other operations to avoid impacting the bottom line as profit margins are squeezed in tandem with consumers buying more clothes online and visiting the high street less. More web orders are forcing greater digitisation on the garment manufacturing supply chain with systems such as product lifecycle management (PLM) gaining in popularity.


Garment manufacturers are leveraging on digital solutions to improve responsiveness to market demands, productivity and cost efficiency.


Noting rapid changes to the garment manufacturing supply chain since the dawn of the internet, Jean-Patrice Gros, managing director for northern Europe and the UK at Lectra, said: “Globally speaking about Industry 4.0, you can read between the lines and see that every sector has already been impacted by advances in technology; but with different mind-sets. It’s in our DNA to find new solutions as markets adapt – every year we spend around 10 per cent of our turnover on research and development. And that’s across everything – from the software to manufacturing and technology. Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems were introduced around the year 2000, and if you look at how the retail landscape has changed with the use of smart phones and the internet since then – it’s been crazy.


Gros notes that PLM is much more than a simple piece of software you can put on a laptop for finding suppliers. “With the right PLM, you can delve much deeper until you find the most suitable technology partners,” he noted, “to achieve operational excellence, every element of the supply chain has to be covered. With Industry 4.0 we don’t change how the manufacturing operates, we introduce methods for brands to meet each other and collaborate on development so they can function more efficiently. It’s now a key method for finding out what the (internet connected) consumer wants and placing them at the heart of every process.”


Sustainability is also another key driver towards this rapid digitisation, with garment manufacturers being asked by customers to save valuable time, money, and resources by reducing material costs and associated wastage at every point in the production cycle.


“In our case, sustainability is our major strategy, so we want to make it clear that economic success is not only workable, but is also sustainable and fair,” says Aaron Bittner, head of apparel division at German outdoor outfitter, Vaude Sport GmbH & Co. KG. “We also use the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to emphasise our commitment to sustainability openness in reporting and we’ve seen an awful lot of consumer interest in these channels.”


The German outdoor brand also notes how digitisation is also rapidly sweeping through it supply chain – even on the shop floor. “We have an in-house innovation team working across a wide-range of products, but we cannot get by on our own, so we need the cooperation of our garment suppliers. Digital technology helps us to quickly source the most suitable innovative garment solutions.”


Vaude utilises the latest garment production technology to make high-end sportswear in Germany. Photo: SammelKorb | VAUDE


Further ways in which Vaude can plan further ahead effectively is by providing information to our customers in a digital format through the use of Quick Response codes (QR codes) and hangtags, which offer added value as sources of supply chain endorsements. “We have tested QR codes but are currently focusing more on our hangtags, so we can provide our customers with all the information they require,” Bittner adds.


“We have also introduced designing in 3D for backpacks, but apparel is something people want to feel and hold in their hands, so we still design mainly in 2D for apparel,” he noted. “However, I can see a change is coming because when you start with 3D you can go through the pattern directly, which is a very interesting development even though it’s not one we are using for our samples at the moment.”


This view was backed up by Devin Wenig, eBay’s chief executive, who told the most recent World Economic Forum, “The fourth industrial revolution is already impacting the fashion business through digital fabrication technologies, additive manufacturing, 3-D printing and new computational design techniques.”


As the inevitable growth of e-commerce means clothing prices are constantly under pressure as cost-conscious consumers compare prices and demand the best value, brands also expect their supply chain partners to respond by cutting costs or offering more value.


As an example, in December, Hong Kong headquartered Li & Fung, one of the world’s leading supply chain management companies, announced that it has not only agreed to divest its furniture, beauty and knitwear product business for US$1.1 billion, but will ramp up efforts to digitise its garment supply chains as part of a new three-year plan aimed at speeding up response times and flexibility. With this plan, the company aims to digitise its business models by only using garment suppliers who can handle the latest IT planning software, so efficiency is improved drastically.


“Disruption is accelerating, and I think even by the end of 2019, the face of retail will be completely different,” company CEO, Spencer Fung, noted at the time.


If the rise in internet shopping and the consequent rapid digitisation of garment supply chains can have such a radical operational impact on the likes of Li & Fung, then it’s clear that most garment suppliers won’t have a choice but to adapt more quickly to the latest demands of the e-commerce world and to more efficient, digitised, garment production planning.


“Based on these new global trends, for many of the world’s top garment manufacturers, the impacts of digitisation will mean much closer integration of textile manufacturer and garment making,” noted Fritz Mayer, President of CEMATEX, the owner of the giant ITMA textile and garment technology exhibition. “This closer integration of garment and textile making will also bring added benefits to the supply chain – transparency, efficiency and greater competitiveness.”


This structural trend is happening globally and a good place to start looking for some of the latest technical solutions to digitisation will be at next year’s ITMA in Barcelona where a range of new developments in garment production technology will be unveiled for the first time.


Retailers and garment suppliers looking to adapt to the new reality of retail would be wise to make a visit.

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