New technologies will help reduce supply chain complexity

New technologies will help reduce supply chain complexity

The use of robotics, digital and 3D manufacturing are all moving the apparel industry towards a fast, flexible response and customised products, but logistics upsets and labour issues refuse to go away.

WINNERS

Sewbo

2016 saw a major breakthrough in clothing manufacturing when a Seattle-based start-up used an industrial robot to sew together an entire T-shirt for the first time. Sewbo has overcome the inability of robots to handle limp, flexible fabrics by temporarily stiffening the material so that conventional robots can build clothes as if they are made from sheet metal. Once the manufacturing is complete, the process is reversed by rinsing the garment in hot water to leave a soft, fully assembled piece of clothing.

Adidas

Adidas's Speedfactory manufacturing initiative has started to take shape this year, with the first running shoe created at its flagship facility in Germany. The high performance Adidas Futurecraft MFG (Made for Germany) shoe was produced using robotic technology in automated modular production cells to combine fast response with the flexibility to offer products that are uniquely customised for individual consumers. The shoe is part of an initial test run from the company with the view of rolling out to other categories in the future. The firm has also set its sights on Atlanta in the US for its second Speedfactory, which is due to open at the end of next year.

Fast Retailing

Fast Retailing, owner of the Uniqlo casual clothing chain, is investing heavily in denim, launching an innovation centre for denim research and development in Los Angeles. The Japanese retailer says the centre will use cutting edge technology to develop products that concentrate on the three Fs – fabric, fit and finish – and environmentally friendly production methods for fading and distressing. The company has also invested JPY400m (US$3.8m) in an  Innovation Factory joint venture with specialist knit machinery manufacturer Shima Seiki Mfg to increase production of Wholegarment seamless knitwear.

Nike

US-based sportswear and footwear company Nike continues to roll out its manufacturing revolution programme, showcasing digital and 3D manufacturing on the world stage. Olympic athletes at the Rio games wore some of the company's latest track spikes that were made through computational design and 3D printing with selective laser sintering. Prototypes were created and tested in hours instead of months, and each set was tailored to the individual athlete's needs.

Suzhou Tianyuan Garments

In a reversal of US reshoring fortunes, Chinese garment manufacturer Suzhou Tianyuan Garments announced it will set up a new US$40m factory in Little Rock, Arkansas by the end of 2017, creating 400 new jobs. Suzhou Tianyuan Garments produces for adidas and Reebok and the company's annual production is around 10m pieces of clothing, 90% of it under the Adidas brand.

Everest Textile

A similar move is seeing Taiwanese textile maker Everest Textile investing $18.5m to open its first US production facility – and its first outside Asia – making performance sportswear fabrics. The company expects to start operation at the state-of-the-art weaving, dyeing and finishing plant in North Carolina's Forest City during the second or third quarter of next year. It will create 307 new jobs in its first three years of operation, with this expected to rise to 610 jobs over five years.

LOSERS

Hanjin Shipping

Manufacturers around the world were hit by the collapse of South Korean transport giant Hanjin Shipping in August. The bankruptcy of the world's seventh largest container shipper caused widespread disruption to apparel supply chains. A coalition of 120 retailers and manufacturers pleaded with the US Commerce Department in August to resolve the fate of their merchandise, as billions of dollars of product were left stranded on docks and ships around the world.

New Balance

Analysis of Donald Trump's victory in the US Presidential election was widely linked to voter anger over the decline of domestic manufacturing in America. Yet brands who supported his platform to 'Make America Great Again' did so at their own peril, as footwear company New Balance discovered. The brand was slammed by customers for its apparent support of Trump's trade stance on social media. New Balance makes or assembles more than 4 million pairs of athletic footwear every year in the US and reported worldwide sales of US$3.72bn in 2015.

Habib Fashions

Workplace woes continue in Bangladesh factories with allegations that trade union registration in the workplace was deliberately thwarted by factory closure. The IndustriAll global union claims that Dhaka-based Habib Fashions – a supplier to many international brands – had orders beyond its capacity but closed its doors to prevent one of their affiliates, the Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation (SGSF), from legally registering at the factory. The company refuted these claims, saying that it did not have enough orders to stay operational.

California sweatshops

The US Department of Labor also found persistent violations of wages and worker hours at garment contractors in Southern California making clothes for retailers including Ross Stores, TJ Maxx, and Forever 21. Data showed that 85% of the 77 cases investigated in the area this year were guilty of violating federal laws – leading to the payment of more than US$1.3m in back wages and liquidated damages for 865 workers.

Peru labour law

Significant concerns were also raised about workers' rights and labour law enforcement in Peru's textile and apparel sectors. A report released in March by the US Department of Labour raised questions regarding the right to freedom of association in the South American nation, especially for those workers employed on consecutive short-term contracts. Worker rights groups allege Peru's law governing employment contracts for non-traditional export (NTE) sectors is incompatible with freedom of association.