If you’re reading this, you survived disruption on a scale that fashion has not seen in living memory. From pulling the shutters down on retail locations across the world, and compressing years’ worth of eCommerce adoption into months, to disrupting global sourcing, production, and shipping – perhaps permanently – COVID demonstrated just how fragile the foundations of our industry were. And every brand, retailer, and producer that stayed standing has had their resilience tested like never before.
As we say goodbye to 2021 and hello to the new year, some things have begun to stabilise. Consumer demand is returning. This past holiday season predicted to be one of the largest spending events on record. Stores are trading again, and indeed some retailers are actively pushing the expansion of physical real estate, even as digital channels scale to new heights.
But the same can’t be said for sourcing, production, and shipping. As shoppers return in droves, brands and retailers are encountering significant barriers to their ability to respond to market demand.
Raw materials are in incredibly short supply, and are commanding prices higher than at any point in the past decade. Production capacity is strained, with brands attempting to forge new manufacturing partnerships, to identify new production markets, and to place orders with over-stretched factories who are facing an unpredictable labour market and even energy shortages.
And where orders are being fulfilled, shipping them from their point of origin to destinations in the USA, UK, and Europe is currently costly enough to eat into the margins retailers are able to achieve – a single shipping container has risen in price many times over – and time-consuming enough that some major brands are opting to charter their own ships, while others are instead warning that under-stocked shelves at Christmas and beyond are all but inevitable.
In practice, this means that while fashion may get away with adopting many of the same processes and practices as it did pre-pandemic downstream, a more significant shift is going to be required in how the industry handles sourcing, production, and shipping.
If COVID can be said to have a silver lining, it would be this: the sheer disruption the industry has endured in the last two years has also created an opportunity for real change. And if that change is needed anywhere in fashion, it’s needed in production (and in how design and technical development integrate with production), because nowhere else are the perils of business-as-usual going to be more pronounced.
Prior to the pandemic, many – if not most – brands would probably admit, off the record of course, that they did not know enough about how their products were being manufactured. Back then, the most obvious manifestation of this was the cycle of news stories where brands were blind-sided by ethical and environmental breaches in their supply chains – a result of a profound lack of visibility and an over-reliance on imports. Today, that same disconnect between design, development, and production has the potential to undermine a brand or retailer’s entire ability to recover and to prepare for the future.
But an alternative approach to offshore manufacturing has existed for some time, and this pivotal point in the post-pandemic recovery is a perfect time for fashion to rediscover it.
The microfactory concept… Remember microfactory does not necessarily mean small….
One of the primary challenges facing global value chains as the fashion industry goes into 2022 remains their distributed nature. Materials are sourced in one location, designs are created in another; cutting, sewing, and assembly happens elsewhere, and every link in that chain is a potential weak point – a chance for unforeseen costs, time delays, and defects and interpretation to sneak into the process. Crucially, as the industry works to overcome the disruption of COVID, each disconnected link in the chain is also an opportunity for the industry’s recovery to stall.
There’s a clear business case, then, for bringing all these different activities as close to one another as possible, geographically, and to unify them within a single technology ecosystem – allowing established brands to tap into production capacity without the level of risk exposure that offshore sourcing and manufacturing still represents nearly two years after the first pandemic lockdowns.
This is a workflow and process that Tukatech built with its microfactories, which are also known as Smart Factories – a concept that emerged from the unification of 3D simulation, 2D pattern design, and digital production technologies some fifteen years ago. Under this model, the entire product lifecycle, from body scan to finished, fitted garment, is consolidated under one roof – situated in a consumption market, close to the consumer – and enabled by a combination of integrated 2D and 3D solutions, direct to fabric printing, laser fabric cutting, and sewing utilising a unit production hanger system.
While each of these technologies has been independently viable (and each has delivered significant value to manufacturers and their brand and retail customers), the communal microfactory concept collects them in one place and aims to deliver a seamless, all-digital flow from the point of order to the point of final sewing and assembly.
And as the name suggests, the vision is for both established and emerging brands to be able to tap into the on-demand production capacity a smart factory offers. This is an important distinction that sets these types of factories apart from the type of advanced, in-country production facilities that verticalized brands have invested in building, and which are reserved solely for that brand’s use. Instead, the smart factory would make on-demand, agile production possible for brands of any shape and size – including those that have been excluded by large minimum order quantities that have only increased following the disruption of the pandemic.
While the industry will almost certainly not shed its reliance on offshore production overnight, and while the production of low-cost, high-volume basics will likely remain concentrated established manufacturing markets, the microfactory could prove to be a compelling option for both households names and start-ups alike.
For those established brands, a network of microfactories offers the ability to respond in an agile way to consumer demand, manufacturing in-country, to order, rather than relying on inaccurate forecasting and markdowns to shift stock that took months to produce and ship.
For emerging designers and fast-growing brands, Tukatech’s communal microfactory concept provides the ability to leapfrog that traditional cycle of sampling and offshore production – instead giving them the chance to rent an advanced production facility for only as much capacity as they need, and allowing them to focus on designing great products, rather than committing to large volumes at a time of unpredictable demand.
Crucially, the communal microfactory is more than just a concept; this past summer, Tukatech and a roster of technology partners showcased a working example, and the company claims that it and its partners have set up more than 70 similar intelligent, agile, communal production facilities in North America alone – with even larger numbers targeted for other countries in the near future.
According to Ram Sareen, founder of Tukatech, “This industry has been too focused on ‘renovating’ rather than ‘innovating.’ Renovation is taking a process that doesn’t work, digitizing it, then wondering why the same problems continue. True innovation requires getting down to the root of the problem, eliminating what doesn’t work anymore and creating new tools and processes that address the problem as it is today.”
Agility on tap, if we act now.
The disruption of 2020 and 2021 is still an immediate concern for most brands, retailers, and their suppliers, and while improvement is in sight from some perspectives, other paths continue to be fraught with difficulties that will take time to resolve. But as the fashion and textiles industries continue to try and mount a successful recovery, the potential of being able to tap into agile, all-digital production closer to home is compelling.
And, critically, the time to take advantage of that opportunity is now – before traditional offshore production becomes accepted, again, as the only game in town. Because if the fashion industry can design, fit, approve, and then produce trend-focused garments digitally in a day, then a model that takes months and relies on inaccurate forecasting will seem out of lockstep with what the market expects.
There is, of course, also a strong sustainability argument to be made for microfactories. In a world where unsold fast fashion is starting to accumulate in the desert, overproduction has quickly become as much of an environmental concern as a commercial one – meaning that brands who are capable of producing closer to the consumer, geographically and in terms of time-to-market, will also be better equipped to meet the rising demand for sustainability.
The technology to realise the microfactory vision – and to redesign how the apparel industry thinks about production, without being saddled with the baggage of the past – is proven. And by gathering all the right partners in one place, supported by comprehensive, affordable technology and quick-start assets like the ones offered by Tukatech, that technology can be made affordable and accessible for a new generation of businesses.
The chance to create lasting change is upon us, and the technology to support that change is ready. The question is whether or not the industry will finally embrace it.
About our partner: For more than 27 years, Tukatech, Inc. has equipped the apparel industry with advanced tools to maximize production efficiency through the entire product development and manufacturing process. Solutions include an award-winning pattern-making system, a virtual sample-making suite, an advanced marker-making program, and a range of automatic computer aided machinery for plotting, spreading, and cutting fabric. These intuitive software and hardware systems are designed by Tukatech’s team of garment-industry experts to fit the unique intricacies of the apparel industry.
From recent college graduates, to freelance designers, to established manufacturers, Tukatech offers custom technology packages that are tailored to the needs of fashion businesses of any size.