Consumers share a lot of information about themselves on social media, giving brands access to a "goldmine of data" they can use to target their product accordingly

Consumers share a lot of information about themselves on social media, giving brands access to a "goldmine of data" they can use to target their product accordingly

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A shift from traditional mass manufacturing to more agile production with multiple capsule collections and scaled personalised production is being driven by hyper-connected consumers who thrive on instant gratification. For brands and retailers the challenge is to listen to what consumers want, and produce the right products at the right quantities for the right audience – which is where digitalisation and analytics comes in.

In the last decade, fashion brands, retailers and manufacturers have found themselves faced with a wealth of challenges, not least of which is that consumers want access to the latest trends – now. 

"Consumers today thrive on instant gratification," explains Peter Jeavons, managing director, Europe, at predictive analytics platform First Insight. "They want things and want them now. They're not willing to wait on a retail store stocking the product for example. And there is much less brand loyalty. If they don't like what they see on offer from one brand, they will switch to another at the click of a button."

He adds that standing still is not an option. "It used to be the case from a technology point of view that doing something always presented more risk than doing nothing. There is a growing belief now that it's more risky to do nothing than to do something. If you're not doing something and other people are, you're falling behind."

Hyper-connected consumers

Not long ago, consumers would actively seek out fashion through web searches, but today they can be targeted directly on their smartphones via social media platforms.

Céline Choussy, chief marketing officer at software and technology specialist Lectra, refers to this as the "hyper-connected consumer" who can shop via various platforms and share their thoughts, emotions and opinions on different channels. The advantage to brands, retailers and manufacturers of this "sharing culture" is access to "a goldmine of data" about their consumer bases.

And consumers are demanding personalisation; apparel that represents their thoughts, feelings and emotions. "The end consumer shares everything on the net via Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram. E-commerce websites are full of information, what they want, how they feel. It is a goldmine for designers to anticipate the right times to launch a design."

Personalisation "is a challenge" impacting the entire supply chain, she says, but at the same time it could also be a real opportunity for manufacturers.

"[Personalisation] is a huge goldmine for designers, people working for creative teams, to anticipate trends and produce the right products at the right time" – Céline Choussy, Lectra

"When we talk about personalisation it means we are no longer in a push mode, producing volumes of shirts, T-shirts, sweaters, hoping they sell. The opportunity? We are producing based on what our customers are willing to buy.

"This changes a lot of business models for our customers. It changes production because you can get the money before you start to produce. Inventory is very, very limited, and there are basically no returns because it's made according to your measurements and your tastes. There are no markdowns. The opportunity at one end is complex. But at the other end, we have the technologies that allow for it to be a profitable one.

"It is a huge goldmine for designers, people working for creative teams, to anticipate trends and produce the right products at the right time."

Strategist Craig Crawford of ThinkIT, CreateIT, says every market is on this personalisation journey, though at different points. For example, in the UK the focus is more toward casual attire but with a premium feel. In the US it is a move from "obvious branding" to "quality" with 'Made-in-the-US "terribly important."  

"China is looking at brands as a status symbol; and Italy has a focus on heritage and craftsmanship, they want to stand out rather than fit in."

And brands are picking up on this, he adds. This year 27% were offering some sort of personalisation, a jump from 16% last year. From the consumer point of view, 71% are ready to pay a premium for personalisation and 15% of them would pay up to 40% more for it.

Faster production

For manufacturers, the challenge is catering to this need for personalisation, but at greater scale – and faster. Lectra has devised two such solutions it believes can meet the demand for faster turnaround on mass production of personalised items.

Cutting Room 4.0: Combining a digital cutting platform – a cloud-based data hub that connects design and product development offices, the cutting room and beyond – with a brand new state-of-the-art single-ply cutting machine, its initial aim was to provide firms with new abilities in made-to-order and on-demand manufacturing and has now been upgraded to allow for mass customisation and made-to-measure capabilities. Its key characteristic is a complete workflow for cutting operations that offers a 360-degree view of the whole process, with systems able to exchange information or effectively "talk" to each other. In other words, "it's not just a cutter, it's a full cutting line. It addresses key processes from getting an order, through planning to optimising the markers and, moving forward, the goal is for the system to "give you alerts, give you suggestions on how you can improve the plan, the scheduling of the cutting" and even adapt to peak seasons," according to Frédéric Gaillard, VP of product marketing, cutting room, at Lectra,

But it also offers what Gaillard describes as "a completely new structure: this cutting line is smart and connected to a digital fitting platform, and 80% of the job is done by the platform. The cutting line only has to execute, but has been smartly prepared and automatically processed by the digital network." Seamlessly connected to ERP, manufacturing execution systems (MES) and CRM systems, a smart, connected Industry 4.0 compliant cutter is "the parachute of the platform," with different packages depending on needs and markets. This may be the level of automation required, or the volume being produced. It will also provide data to all involved, from the cutting room operator to the plant manager.

Fashion On Demand by Lectra: The package comes in two forms – one dedicated to made-to-measure, and the other to customisation. It enables companies to define the product customisation criteria and range for each item depending on the package (such as altering product characteristics for customisation and pattern adjustments for made-to-measure) and launch production processes right from the get-go, without interfering with their standard workflows. It is designed as a "comprehensive personalisation solution that will be able to perform under the same market conditions as the ready-to-wear segment and produce the same, if not better, results." With a 360° view of the entire personalisation process, customers have the ability to streamline multiple production processes and manage complex individual demands from custom order to cut piece. In addition, thanks to the supply-chain flexibility that companies gain, they will be able to expand their product range and offer more variety, without interrupting their existing production processes.

Data is key

Lectra says its Cutting Room 4.0 and Fashion on Demand technologies are intended to respond to a growing mountain of data, drawing it in from the various locations and helping retailers and brands make sense of it so they can deliver what their customers want, and fast.

"'Big Data' is collected through the cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning. All of it allows vendors to better understand their end consumer. But how much data can you use, how do you filter out what you don't need? The key is not with the data itself, it's more about what you do with it," asserts Choussy.

"What you are willing to change with this data? Why do you collect it? Ultimately, we need to use the data and understand it in order to better serve our customers and end consumers. That's why Lectra puts its end consumer at the very centre of our strategy."

Gaillard agrees. "What the technologies aim to do is actually address production challenges. Is the problem with efficiency? Is it a throughput issue with the machine? Is it fabric efficiency or operator efficiency? These were the questions customers were coming to us with. So the idea is to select the right programme to tackle a specific challenge: the right level of data, with the right interface, with the expertise of Lectra on top and using the latest technologies.

"This will come into the shape of two things: real-time control, and analysing in detail things that have happened in the past and what could happen. It's about improving quality, boosting productivity and better decision making to really feed into continuous improvement and reduced costs using data analytics. This is really what we want to push in terms of data."

Crawford explains digital and data are not a fad. "Digital is not a project, this is not going away. It is a journey. The device has changed...but you have to keep up.

"Digital is not a project, this is not going away. It is a journey. The device has changed...but you have to keep up" – Craig Crawford, ThinkIT, CreateIT 

"The next generation is growing up in a digital world, and they speak socially. Whether you're talking with customers or talking with employees, you have to do it on a social platform, because that's the language they speak.

"Blend physical and digital. Your staff has to be on social. Your IT department can't block that. They have to spend their time on Facebook. They should, the brand is there. Staff should be incentivised for eCommerce sales."

Seismic shift

A fundamental question is whether the industry is truly ready for a move to fully digitalising all processes.

"There is a seismic shift from push to pull," asserts Crawford. "Products pulled into the market based on actual demand rather than pushed based on best guesses and forecasts. Under the pull dynamic, the customer leads. In the old way we would make and make and make in volumes based on spend analysis, and now here we are with an inventory pothole and with retailers going out of business. Fundamentally customers don't want choice. They want what they want."

Part of the problem is a real reluctance from brands to move over. "Millennials want to be involved in the evolution of the product and feel involved in the process, but brands are hesitant to hand over the reins," he adds.

"They're worried about price and margin, supply chain/logistics are not set up to go from digital to physical, they're not familiar with producing on demand, their supply chains aren't ready, and personalisation is not in their DNA. We need to let some of these things go," asserts Crawford.  

"Everybody wins: customers get what they want, you get loyalty, the manufacturers capitalise on technological advancements, and brands can track bestsellers. The size of the prize is there is no excess inventory; you are doing amazing things for sustainability because now we don't have excess inventory we need to get rid of; lower capital; flexible, agile; shorter turnaround times...and that's all coming and it's here."