A question about process complexity

As an apparel manufacturer supplying international brands, if you think about your current process starting from costing the products successfully to win the order through into fabric purchasing (the major part of your product cost) and then moving on to cutting the right amount of fabric within the available time and with the available resources. As good as it is today, what is the part of that process which concerns you the most?

For some it’s having to cost hundreds of orders in the space of a couple of days, trading off speed with accuracy, because you can’t have both right? For others it’s the fabric purchasing stage, having now agreed the price and won the order the clock is now well and truly ticking, how can I best handle the many different variables and thousands of possible cut-plan, marker combinations which will allow me to purchase the least amount of fabric possible.

For the rest it’s wrestling with the reality of the cutting floor, adding in even more variation and complexity from unexpected roll widths, fabric shrinkage, colour shading and defects, all combined with the availability of resources in the cutting room on the day.

These however are not problems, they are the symptoms we have become accustomed to and live with on a day to day basis. The diagnosis? A combination of disconnected processes, poor data clarity, manual skill bottlenecks and traditional tech solution deployment and licensing models.

The current situation has highlighted these problems to such an extent that the new clarity that it brings with it leaves us in no doubt what has to be done to first survive and then grow.

Circular Economy

The ongoing pandemic, and the uncertain impact it might have on business, has prompted companies of all shapes and sizes to reflect on how quickly old habits can be broken by the right external influence. 

One of the most prominent, and damaging, old habits in retail is the disposable fashion model, and the pandemic itself could be a serious catalyst for kick-starting the circular economy in a way that moves it beyond a thought experiment for the next generation and towards a global imperative.

In this scenario, the winners will be brands who have built ecological and ethical credentials they can confidently promote.  These will be brands who have purposefully chosen to design with quality and longevity in mind, using high quality, higher-cost fabrics and recycled materials and attracting consumers who are willing to pay a premium to shop with their conscience.

Customer Buying Habits

The way consumers shop has been shaped by fashion’s traditional and the emerging online model: offering as many size and fit options as possible.  Both of these add considerable complexity in manufacturing and have led to the rise in consumers purchasing multiple sizes online with the intention of returning those that do not fit.

We spoke to a manufacturer supplying an international online retailer recently who revealed to us that they were now required to cost, purchase, and cut fabric for products that have more than 60 different size variations.  In their case the variations arose from different permutations of waist and inseam measurements, but we also see the same trend in other garments, and especially in intimates.

The impact of this added complexity is significant.  Every variation has a potential impact on cost and efficiency for the manufacturer, and each size reduces the capacity of their cutting, sewing, and finishing operations.

Automation

The most flexible and agile manufacturers – capable of quickly changing the products they make and adjusting their processes and priorities in close to real-time – will be the ones who can cope with this volume and increased complexity demands that are likely to continue to increase. 

Without being able to directly control external pressures, which come from consumers and retailers, these manufacturers will need to manage these new complexities associated with a greater number of smaller orders, an increased number of sizes and additional colours to mention just a few of the added complexities that will become the new norm! 

Managing this complexity, though, is not going to be easy and will require a different approach using intelligent software solutions. The fashion sector must look to implementing new processes linked to new levels of collaboration between software platforms, helping to deliver greater transparency across the entire value-chain, that will include greater automation to support the future of manufacturing.  Centralising and managing a new digitally connected demand-chain is going to require several things: agile software tailored to the needs of demand chain users, the ability to automate and de-skill processes using intelligent algorithms, open software platforms that allow data to be Input & Output from 3rd party solutions. We are entering a new chapter that will require the combined efforts of people and computers working together to manage the complexities and variety of products. Those companies that try to manage their businesses in the traditional way will soon find it impossible to perform these tasks manually, task which at the same time have previously been consigned to the category of “too complex to automate”.

Software on the Cloud, available anywhere

As we transition to an online, on demand world, traditional software (on-premise) licensing models will become less desirable as they lack the dynamic integrations operating between each of the partners operating in the customers unique digital ecosystem.  For manufacturers whose most critical objective is to become more interconnected and responsive, the idea of large upfront investment in a static on-premise solution is no longer appealing.

In its place, flexible Software as a Service (SaaS) agreements will continue to become more popular, supported by the migration of many software suites to cloud infrastructure.  SaaS solutions deliver value on an ongoing monthly basis, with no multi-stage ROI that needs to be defined and rigorously adhered to, so that when a business – or an entire industry, as we have seen during the pandemic – is disrupted, the business licensing the software can pivot their operations to ensure that they continue to drive value from the solution through low, ongoing operational expenditure with an agile partner

The fact that the bulk of SaaS solutions run on either public or private clouds also makes them uniquely suited to the pandemic landscape and the ever-increasing demands of the retailers to provide the consumer with their perfect choice that eventually finds its way to the manufacturer.  Many companies have already committed to not reopening local offices at least any time soon, and as a result they require their business-critical data to be accessible from anywhere, with high levels of security.  For both manufacturing businesses and their brand and retail customers, that universal accessibility has quickly become mission-critical, rather than a “nice to have”.

As one customer implementing ShapeShifter immediately before the start of the pandemic commented…

Why would you ever again create a Return on Investment business case for a static computer software implementation in an office or factory knowing that it may not even be usable at certain times? The deployment of ShapeShifter’s cloud-based solution meant we could continue to rebuild our data, based on the updated needs of our customers, so that as business returns we can continue to plan and complete the work in advance, from home.”

Connected & Collaborative

As` the fashion industry transitions toward a more digitally connected value-chain, we will need to speed up the connections between legacy software solutions, using IoT smart devices, further integrations between platforms and using smart devices that can be connected to hardware to help support the customers own unique digital ecosystem. Solution providers of all types will need to engage and collaborate with both the up and down stream data systems. In-house software developers, machine, hardware and technology providers will need to develop open-systems and standards, to help improve the speed of what is an evolutionary process. This also will require traditional competitors to share common data types on a plug and play basis. Working together we have the opportunity to utilise sophisticated computer infrastructures, anywhere and at anytime, we can use the power of the many to shine a light into the blackhole of manufacturing, it’s certainly something that will not happen overnight, but make no mistake that the fashion sector has started to enter a new chapter in connecting the end-to-end value chain.

Automating the Impossible

So what could be the treatment for our earlier diagnosis? Well, first, what if we did not have to trade off speed with accuracy? What if we could, through automating and connecting the merchandising, ordering, cut-plan and marker making processes know all the possible outcomes and prioritize the best 2%? And what if we could do this right from the start as we do our product costings and follow through with “live data” updates from connected systems from the textile mill to the cutting room?

When designing a system like this “perfect” should never be the enemy of “good”, all digital suppliers and integrators should be able to attribute a measurable “at risk” dollar impact to any enhancement of the current process and continue to automate those skills, techniques workarounds and yes…”magic”, that have been hard won over the last 50 years of manufacturing in one of the most competitive industries in the world.

This is not in fact, impossible! Using intelligent algorithms (ia) predictive technologies and deep mathematics the impact of all complex manual processes can be measured, modelled, replicated and automated, all that is required is an agile business approach and a collaborative diagnostic process.


About the sponsor – Deployed online in a day and used at costing, fabric buying and manufacturing stages, ShapeShifter Prophet is a cloud-based software solution which reduces fabric waste and optimizes the cutting room through intelligent algorithms and cutting-edge mathematics. ShapeShifter works alongside the customer and its collaborators to design and customize solutions and co-create value for specific business situations with flexible SaaS software solutions which form part of the customers own unique digital ecosystem. You can find out more about ShapeShifter at www.ss-prophet.com or by contacting us at info@ss-prophet.com

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