Automated equipment specialist DESMA Schuhmaschinen believes digitised customer foot data is the key to new manufacturing models where every shoe will be ordered pre-production. (Photo credit: WFSGI / Andreas Gebert)

Automated equipment specialist DESMA Schuhmaschinen believes digitised customer foot data is the key to new manufacturing models where every shoe will be ordered pre-production. (Photo credit: WFSGI / Andreas Gebert)

The world's leading sportswear brands and manufacturers are struggling to equip their factories with the robotic and cyber physical systems (CPS) element of Industry 4.0 processes, at least in the near term, a major international conference has heard. 

The World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) Manufacturers Forum in Taiwan this month played host to delegates from 20 countries representing brands such as Adidas and Nike, market-leading manufacturers such as Taiwan's footwear specialist Pou Chen, as well as academics and Industry 4.0 experts. 

Industry 4.0 – or the fourth industrial revolution – reflects the goal of connecting the internet of things and big data to redefine and integrate existing business processes so that real-time data can be used to drive efficiency and ensure production is more responsive.

Much of the talk on the sidelines of the event was of the difficulty in incorporating CPS into textile and shoe manufacturing given the variable nature of inputs such as leather for stitching, not to mention the problems posed by rapid product cycles and multiple-unit order books.

A factory visit to a Taiwanese leader in the Industry 4.0 field, the automotive electronics manufacturer Mobiletron, did nothing to dispel the general feeling that while admirable, similarly automated and efficient factory floors are tough to apply to the sporting goods manufacturing business.  

Another conflict faced by industry players was articulated perfectly by forum moderator Professor Steve Evans, of the UK's University of Cambridge: "If you chase low cost labour you are running away from the best talent."

Highly skilled labour is evidently necessary for implementing Industry 4.0 systems and, as speaker Andy Liu, sales and marketing director at Delta Electronics noted, there is not sufficient technical talent in Thailand, let alone Vietnam, where many of the delegates now base their production.

Some at the forum have already opened or are planning to open plants in Myanmar – aiming to take advantage of the preferential European Union (EU) trading terms offered there – in the latest example of the low-cost labour chase.  

Speed of adaptation

But that is not to say industry is not willing to listen or adapt. The question, as adroitly posed by opening speaker Edwin Keh, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), is will textile companies adapt fast enough?

Drawing on the example of energy and electric car specialist Tesla Motor to illustrate the speed with which traditional industries can face disruption from the tech sector, Keh suggests it remains unclear which clothing brands and manufacturers will be the first to work out how to make "smart" clothes with these new technologies.

Florian Miguet, CEO of Hong Kong-based Clim8, introduced his company as "the first solution to apply on clothing that is intelligent enough to regulate an end user's temperature and improve comfort whatever the activity or climatic conditions." Miguet adds that Under Armour is "many years" ahead of the pack when it comes to integrating such technology on a commercially successful, mass produced level.

Keh also showed off a few of the institute's innovations, among them an image colour measurement system, a fabric impact assessment tool and a fabric touch tester, which offers a concrete value for an art hitherto confined to the subjective.  

Following Keh's talk, Alison Starr, executive director responsible for strategy and business at the UK's National Composites Centre, outlined her organisation's work in using collaborative and multifunctional pick-and-place robots that could handle delicate fabrics and apply liquid compression molding.

Starr highlighted that the centre's work in optimising production of the doors of London Tube trains had saved the Central Line alone about GBP5m due to materials, maintenance and weight savings. 

Essential links

The point implied is that Keh and Starr represent essential links if sporting goods manufacturers are to successfully implement Industry 4.0 in Asia-Pacific.

In Germany, a global leader in the field, here represented by Christian Decker, managing director of shoe production engineering specialist DESMA Schuhmaschinen, and Aditya Ramkrishna, of Siemens Taiwan, the initiative is driven through platforms that integrate clusters composed of industry, research institutes and government.

Industry demands, academia innovates and government directs. Yet in Taiwan and elsewhere integration and collaboration between such stakeholders is absent or underdeveloped. The fact forums such as these are held by the WFSGI rather than a local industry body is a case in point. 

So the problem is not just that apparel and shoes are tricky to integrate with CPS; it's that the infrastructure and opportunity around such experimentation is lacking in the region where the world's leading brands currently base their production. And just as the brands push manufacturers to chase lower labour costs, it is the brands that have greatest sway when it comes to production processes. 

"I'm the first person to hold this position," says Roger Ou, automation director at Pou Chen Nike division, adding that a background in machine tools allows him to identify and understand the unique challenges posed by shoe production when it comes to automation, and also Industry 4.0. 

By way of example, Ou says that since 2012 some Nike shoes have leveraged computerised knitting processes that produce shoe uppers in one piece, allowing for a higher level of automation – but that production of "classic" model stitched footwear remains obstinately difficult to streamline.  

Standardising footwear design

In similar mode, representatives from Adidas raise the difficulty of standardising footwear design in a manner that allows for more easily automated modular batch production, as development in this direction renders brands too inflexible to respond to the 90-day or fewer cycles that fast fashion demands. 

That said, the fashion sector is not alone in its troubles. Take bicycles: Chris Pomering, Asia engineering manager for Trek Bicycle in Taiwan, says the industry has only started to push for greater automation in the last year or so. So while robots now perform jobs like aluminium welding and stock movement, the industry remains beholden to small order volumes and rapid turnover product cycles that make further automation, or Industry 4.0 upgrading, problematic. 

So while sporting goods manufacturers have long embraced the benefits of enterprise resource planning (ERP) to better manage their inventory, the use of robotics and integrated sensors in the production process – alongside the people qualified to operate them – remains an elusive panacea.

Whether the answer will eventually emerge in Asia-Pacific, or be developed closer to home, remains an open question.