Moderator Anson Bailey, Head of Consumer and Retail, ASPAC, KPMG (left), with speakers Stan Burton (Under Armour), Duncan Scott (New Balance), Tim Chiu (CBX Software) and Dr Mike Fralix ([TC]2)

Moderator Anson Bailey, Head of Consumer and Retail, ASPAC, KPMG (left), with speakers Stan Burton (Under Armour), Duncan Scott (New Balance), Tim Chiu (CBX Software) and Dr Mike Fralix ([TC]2)

Digital transformation and the need for speed in retail and brand supply chains continue to be among the core topics of conversation for apparel industry executives.

"We've seen disruption for the last 12 years in the industry," says Stan Burton, managing director Hong Kong, and senior director Asia Sourcing at Under Armour.

"Some things have remained the same when you're looking at a factory floor, but within the brands and the way that we're thinking, we're almost moving past the idea of disruptive because every new idea is so good.

"Businesses need to be able to change more rapidly, and we need to have [younger] people who can adapt to that change and implement that change," he told delegates at the recent Prime Source Forum event in Hong Kong.

For Duncan Scott, VP external products at New Balance, a lot of disruption is likely to come from looking at the end-to-end supply chain.

"What's going to happen is you can add a lot of value by making more of the right stuff and less of the wrong stuff, by working much closer to market. It'll change the need to have a factory floor, so you'll have shorter runs, and I think that's going to be the biggest impact.

"We talk about the importance of Industry 4.0 and connectivity and the horizontal piece of it, but if you're not doing the basics about leaning out your processes, leaning out your systems internally, you're not going to be able to participate the whole way.

Is it all about speed?

"Speed is critical, so you have to be closer to market," Scott believes. "But there are so many ways in this industry that you can add value. The reality is we're very far behind other industries in terms of productivity, but we're making progress rapidly. It could be that you go with robotics, it could be that you think about lean, and it could be that you're moving your factory closer to the consumer – all of those things are going to add value and reduce costs.

"So for that reason it's a little less predictable about how robots will dominate the scene, because you have choices."

Tim Chiu, SVP at CBX Software, agrees that talk about robots is "all about production speed gains...but I don't think that's really the problem. Right now consumers are operating at such a fast speed, but for most retailers and brands it's the end-to-end supply chain that's extremely slow; it's many, many months...it's at a totally different speed compared to what the consumers are operating at.

"That's where we need to go faster, that's where the big opportunity is."

"We've gone from B2B to B2C to C2B – and that begins with the consumer getting involved even in the design and development, and expecting delivery in one to three days," notes Dr Mike Fralix, president and CEO at [TC]2.

"So all of us need to keep thinking about what the C2B business strategy is going to be and how we're going to align our supply chains to do that."

What about AI and data overload?

"Data is going to help you measure the supply chain, data is going to help you determine what speed you are in your supply chain," explains Chiu.

"And data coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) is potentially where the magic is going to occur, because this is where the system will more intelligently tell you and warn you what you need to change and watch out for."

From a practical point of view, and how it may apply in sourcing, production and the formation of digital supply chains: "There's a lot of data. We're putting all the data into a database, putting it into the cloud. And companies are putting in critical path systems at the same time, so they can schedule all the milestones and activities from concept all the way through to delivery.

"And how AI is going to be helping is around smarter alerts, smarter notification. It will prompt the supply chain, the merchandiser.

"We're also seeing AI from a tendering and costing point of view. AI is going to help you come out with a much smarter costing picture: it's going to help you compare suppliers' score cards, outstanding corrective actions, compare against your pre-cost and what's the best price.

"But it's also going to give you ideal prices: it'll look at ten different offers and smartly tell you what the best price should be."

What trends do we need to understand?

Industry 4.0, robotics, 3D printing, blockchain, AI, augmented reality, drones, showrooming, machine learning...?

"You need to study all of it," says Chiu. "It's going to affect you at some point, now or later."