The robots are coming panellists, from left: Pete Santora, Pamela Mar, David Roberts and Carys Roberts

'The robots are coming' panellists, from left: Pete Santora, Pamela Mar, David Roberts and Carys Roberts

As digitisation, connectivity, robotics and artificial intelligence start to make inroads into apparel production, now is the time for the industry to move towards  "responsible automation" – where workers are trained and supported so they have the skills for the future.

It's generally accepted these technologies have the potential to increase productivity in apparel manufacturing and drive speed to market.

But what is less clear is the impact a so-called robot revolution would have on the fashion industry's sustainability performance and the millions of jobs currently created by labour-intensive factories.

"We absolutely need companies to be investing in technology. That's how we get economic growth in industry, it's how we get higher wages," explains Carys Roberts, senior economist at IPPR, the UK-based think tank.

"But we need to make sure that is benefiting everyone. We also need to make sure that there are new jobs for people to go to. Education isn't enough if there aren't any jobs for you to go to."

"The process of digitisation and automation is going to be gradual – and that gives us time to prepare"

For Pamela Mar, director of supply chain futures at Fung Academy, parent of the global sourcing giant Li & Fung, the process of digitisation and automation is going to be gradual – "and that gives us time to prepare."

"I want to see an industry committed to responsible automation where workers are actually supported in workforce transition, both inside the factory as well as the workers that leave. And that's a whole society effort," she told a panel discussion titled 'The robots are coming' at this year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit.

A study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests workers in Southeast Asia's textiles, clothing and footwear industries are at the highest risk of losing their jobs to the rise of automation, with women the most vulnerable.

Of the 9m people working in the sector in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, 64% of Indonesian workers, 86% of Vietnamese workers and 88% of Cambodian workers are at risk, it says.

Yet speakers insist that while some fashion industry jobs will be lost to automation, "it creates far more than it takes."

"The jobs that get created don't even exist now – and automation frees us from all those jobs that we don't want to do...dirty jobs, boring jobs, jobs that are dangerous," says David Roberts, faculty member at Singularity University, a NASA and Google-funded initiative.

"In fashion you could find data analytics and statistics jobs are going to change as much as manufacturing. And whenever there's change, we have winners and losers"

"Technology is likely to change how we all work," agrees Carys Roberts, adding: "In fashion you could find data analytics and statistics jobs are going to change as much as manufacturing. And whenever there's change, we have winners and losers."

The winners "are the people who quickly find new jobs, those who have skills that machines can't do, such as creativity, and that's good news for a lot of people in fashion.

"But there will also be losers, people who see their wages pressed down because they are increasingly in competition with machines."

There are other questions that also need to be considered, she says. Such as: "Who owns that machinery? Who owns the data? Who owns the algorithms? It's going to become increasingly important.

"So it's not just about will we all be unemployed, it's what kind of jobs will we be doing and the big risk of inequality from divergent wages – and the people who own the robotics and data winning."

Factory level support

At the factory level, digitisation, connectivity, automation and technology upgrading is the way of the future concurs Mar.

"It will actually be a very empowering process for the factories, because they can have better quality, better speed, more visibility into their operations, be agile and flexible, and have increased capacity as well."

That said, "the consequence is that they will produce a certain amount with fewer workers."

The responsible approach to automation, she believes, is to educate factories to train and support workers so they have the skills they will need for the future.

"We start with health, financial inclusion, focusing on their well-being – but it's also about training technical skills, how you look at data, how you operate machinery, how you troubleshoot. And that's all stuff that the private sector needs to do in order to enable workers to be included in the process of technological upgrading.

"Another thing, especially in emerging markets, is for companies to be in continuous dialogue with governments to make sure that the employees who are entering the workforce actually do so with relevant skills. Which is not the case now."

"Technology upgrading and doing more with fewer resources is the way of the future...it's up to the corporate sector to do that responsibly"

Mar concludes: "Technology upgrading and doing more with fewer resources is the way of the future. It's up to the corporate sector to do that responsibly. Also, to work with government to ensure that the workers who actually do transition out of labour intensive manufacturing have access to support, relevant education and so on.

"For me, the big concern is that this is a process that is going to take place over a number of years – but we're not seeing efforts from the government and private sector collaboratively to provide the support for workers who are actually going to go through the transition.

"There's a lot being written about it academically, but there's not a lot of actual practical, on the ground support for workers in emerging economies."

Paving the way for digital factories

Pete Santora, chief commercial officer at SoftWear Automation, which is developing robotic worklines for the apparel and footwear industry, believes robots have been a scapegoat for wider issues within the sector.

"Workers don't work in the best conditions, and in some ways I think robotics is a way to target this problem and then say, 'the robots are going to take the jobs.' I understand that viewpoint, but I also think you need to respect and educate the workforce today rather than demonising robotics.

"Don't turn away from the issue of your labour force, just because robots are coming."

He believes the integration of robotics and automation into production lines is going to be a gradual process that starts with the least-skilled and most repetitive tasks – as well as tackling challenges like transportation related costs and costly, unwanted inventory.

"I don't think robots produce more goods, necessarily faster; I think they give us the opportunity to produce fewer goods [and] only when the customer has ordered"

"I don't think robots produce more goods, necessarily faster; I think they give us the opportunity to produce fewer goods [and] only when the customer has ordered.

"With that model you obviously have no inventory and you're delivering it directly to the customer, you're not marking down, you're not burning your clothing or sending it to third world countries as a way to offload your goods. So what I see is not robotics coming in – but digital factories.

"In the future I see this concept of customer and production and delivery all within a two to three day window, and is directly tied to the order that's made."

But he also warns: "I don't think in the model of the future that you can deliver on what the consumer is pushing for – which is product faster, more customised, more on-demand, and still have a global supply chain that services all the production.

"We can talk about how to make the global supply chain better, but the industry has to start looking at other ways to deliver to the customer that are not possible with the global supply chain today. It's also not possible to start a factory with people in the US or in Europe, to deliver to those customers. So, we're kind of stuck in this path."

Looking into the future, however, he envisages "a local supply chain that delivers to the local community. I see designers being from the local community, designing for their neighbours. I see their neighbours participating in the making of the goods, and I see us being able to do that by knocking out a lot of the social and sustainability goals that we have. Maybe the path forward right now doesn't seem as clear."