Advanced digitised manufacturing, value chains
and business models are transforming the apparel industry

Advanced digitised manufacturing, value chains and business models are transforming the apparel industry

Clothing manufacturing will be completely transformed by the internet and digital printing over the next five to ten years, according to industry experts speaking in Brussels this week at a conference on 'European Textiles: Going Digital – Going High-Tech'.

"The real big driver is digitisation coming from the internet age," Lutz Walter, secretary general of the European Technology Platform for the Future of Textiles and Clothing (ETP) – the largest European textiles research and innovations network – told just-style at the event.

"Online distribution and sales have turned the industry upside down. The established players will struggle because the cost of the stock [that they need to keep in the warehouses] is killing them," said Walter, who is also head of R&D, innovation and projects, at the European Textile and Apparel Confederation (Euratex).

He explained the shift will be driven from the retail end of the fashion business, increasingly dominated by online platforms that "intimately know the purchasing profiles of all their customers and can likely very precisely predict or steer what the consumer will buy and when.

"Social networks, consumer review/feedback sites, purchase histories are already far superior to shop assistants and there is the high convenience of online/mobile shopping," he continued, noting the finding from a May 2015 Fung Business Intelligence Centre study that online retailers Zalando, in Germany, and in France had increased sales 94.7% and 47% from 2009-2014, respectively.

"To understand this potential, one has to zoom out from the actual garment manufacturing step and visualise the full value creation process from the design stage until the moment the consumer receives the ready garment," he said.

For even the most advanced fast fashion brands, such as Zara and Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), "this process is long, hugely complex, fault prone and immensely wasteful," Walter emphasised. "But thanks to an almost all digital, fully integrated process we could go to a largely made-to-order/measure concept over time."

Digital printing is also hugely influential in the sector, Walter said, with "more opportunities for quick, customised products."

"Digital design and prototyping feeding directly into print and cut operations will leave actual sewing as the sole bottleneck. But with the enormous time, efficiency gains and minimisation of waste and unsold items, the sewing cost, which could still be kept reasonable in the lower labour cost countries in and around Europe, should be relatively easy to absorb."

"The order pad has replaced the crystal ball"

Other speakers agreed. "In four years it will be possible for businesses to reorganise themselves, change value chains and renovate the sector," said Jesse Marsh, lead partner at Palermo, Italy-based consulting partnership Atelier Studio Associato.

Also, Hervé François, commercial head of French fashion print design network Mitwill Textiles Europe, affirmed "the face of the future is the modem."

Keith Hoover, vice president of material process and colour innovation at US sports clothing and accessories company Under Armour, said technological change meant shorter lead times and better planning.

"The order pad has replaced the crystal ball; we have store and stock rooms instead of warehouses," he said, telling just-style afterwards: "The new venue for selling is the smartphone."

For Hoover, digitisation is driven by ICT (information and communications) technology as well as online selling. "We've been putting sensors in garments for the last five years, particularly in sportswear to monitor activity, with data uploaded to the customer's smartphone or to the cloud. That's opened up a market that didn't exist before."

He emphasised new technology had long surpassed 'smelly' T-shirts or socks with breathable, smell-combatting fabrics.

The US sportswear giant is pioneering a new state-of-the-art Lighthouse manufacturing innovation facility that brings new opportunities in local-for-local manufacturing and customised products. 

How Under Armour's Lighthouse will disrupt production

Even US-based Hypercolor and Del Sol's clothes that change colour according to heat do not match the radical technology of a T-shirt equipped with a button that you press to change the garment's colour. "This might not be marketed for ten years, but when advertised, we had a massive amount of phone calls."

Digital skills

And while some might expect new technology to cut jobs, Francisco Ibáñez, scientific officer at the European Commission's directorate general for communications networks, content and technology (DG Connect) said 90% of jobs require some level of digital skills and 800,000 ICT vacancies will become available in the European Union by 2020.

With this in mind, Paolo Canonico, technical and R&D director of Italian clothing company Saati Group SpA, urged the Commission to prioritise digitisation, virtual modelling and digitally enabled business models in research funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.

Canonico, also ETP president, told just-style the main challenge for the future was "the scale up from protocol to industrialisation of the product," with more demand for systems solutions combining material with technology.

He added, in view of competition from overseas, "if industry is on top of advanced technology, we are still safe. We are fighting this [low cost production] every day."

Smart clothing

The health and wellness and 'smart' sportswear sessions emphasised digitisation results in "new levels of productivity and creativity in clothing manufacture".

French healthcare clothing company BioSerenity's COO Marc Frouin said he hoped the company's "second skin" sensor-driven smart textiles would be able to predict upcoming epileptic fits within three to five years; while Aitex Textile Research Institute international projects head Rosa López showed how 'smart' T-shirts for adolescents could help reduce sedentary behaviour by recording activity on their smartphone.

Turning to sport, João Gomes, RTD manager for smart systems at Portugal's centre for nanotechnology and smart materials (CeNTI), detailed fibre-based sensors in outdoor and protection garments.

While Rickard Rosendahl, CEO of Sweden's Inuheat group, demonstrated a 'wearable heating platform': "an entire eco system with all components and materials needed for a clothing manufacturer to produce clothes with built-in battery powered heating."

Marco Dal Lago, CEO and co-founder of CLARA Swiss Tech, presented smart textile innovations for EU cyclists. "Some 2,000 cyclists are killed in traffic accidents each year," he said, outlining how his award-winning fibre optics and lighting system on cycling jackets and backpack covers could help "by merging textiles with electronics."

One thing is clear: digitisation has boosted EU textile and clothing productivity by an impressive 36% since 2004; with exports increasing 37% in value, according to the ETP's new 'Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda' unveiled at the conference.

And DG Connect's Ibáñez cited a May 2015 European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel report proclaiming 'wearable technologies' – technical textiles comprising alternative materials and new technologies – as seen in the personal protective system for firemen developed by EU-funded research project smart@fire, were "one of the ten technologies that could change our lives."