Throughout June and July, The Interline’s focus has been on what we’ve called “factories of the future”.  Under that umbrella we – and our sponsors and collaborators – have captured a lot of different technologies, from digital printing and dyeing to sourcing platforms, and from labour quantification methods and connected sewing machines to quality and compliance solutions.

If the breadth of that spread has taught us one thing, it’s that “future” was perhaps the wrong word to use.  Because by stacking those different solutions up, and charting the logical through-line from one to the next, it has become clear that there is nothing, technologically speaking, standing in the way of the factory of the future being feasible to build right here, right now.

And neither is there a lack of demand for a different way of doing things.  On an almost daily basis the curtain is being pulled aside on a new supply chain scandal – overseas or in-country – and even the most prominent names in transparency are facing questions as to why their actual measures do not align with their marketing.

While this is not an article about transparency and sustainability – we’re saving that for a dedicated special look in September – it’s important to realise that the spotlight on manufacturing is not going away.  Consumers, regulators, and reporters all have a vested interest in seeing the processes of production become more open and equal.  And brands, too, have an urgent requirement to control their costs, improve their speed to market, and ensure compliance with what the world expects from a fashion industry free of exploitation.

But actually taking action on fixing the current supply chain is impossible without simultaneously upgrading the supply chain.

As our manufacturing coverage winds to a close (look for exclusive content focused on digital materials from Monday) I spent a bit of time with Gonçalo Cruz, one of the co-founders of made-to-order digital transformation platform Platforme.  As someone who spends their days bringing together a lot of disparate technologies and processes to deliver on a new vision for manufacturing, Cruz painted a clear picture of where the primary pain points are today:

“The concept and sampling stage of product creation has seen incredible adoption of digital technologies, which has accelerated companies’ digital transformation, but so far it hasn’t had much of an impact on production because manufacturing happens in such a linear way, and relies on volume.  With the real value of manufacturing being the actual assembly process, though, an ideal world would be one where we have all the pre-production processes that come before – material sourcing, pattern cutting and so on – completed, so that we don’t need to sew thousands of pieces at once, and we have the luxury of staggering production to respond to the actual market performance of a style.”

Platforme co-founders goncalo cruz (left) and ben demiri

Back at the start of June, when The Interline began its deep-dive into manufacturing, I wrote that “the need for visibility and control has assumed a new dimension,” as a result of the COVID pandemic and the pre-existing market forces it exaggerated.  At the time, I was talking mainly about brands and retailers being able to monitor and optimise the traditional “push” model of predictable bulk orders, but over the last two months it’s become evident that the real requirement is for brands (and their supply chain partners) to both be able to exert control over production on a real-time basis.

“As an example, take a brand ordering 3,000 pieces of a single style,” says Cruz.  “Normally they push an order for that many pieces into production, but they know that even in a best case scenario they will not sell them all in the first day, week, or even the first few weeks.  In that case, the brand and the manufacturer would both be better off if instead of pushing 3,000 pieces to be made in one go, the brand pays for the factory’s sewing and assembly capacity up-front, but the orders are actually manufactured in stages.  The cost is the same for the brand, and the revenue is the same for the factory, but both parties get greater visibility into how the style is performing in the market without committing to holding the full amount in inventory.  If it turns out the full production capacity is needed for replenishment, great, but if the product isn’t selling then you have the chance to reinterpret it or re-think it, because it exists as parts and production capacity, not stock.”

The key word there, of course, is stock.  At the start of the pandemic, retailers were left with large volumes of unsold spring / summer 2020 stock that they could either sell through digital channels (if they had their own direct to consumer online storefronts), offload through marketplaces, or even pack away and hope to sell next year.  But the critical part is that COVID did not create those stockpiles – it just made the practice of keeping them more obvious, and highlighted the sheer risk of a model that relies on creating large volumes of things we predict people might want months from now, in a world where day-to-day changes has never been more volatile.

image courtesy of platforme

I asked Cruz for his take on how fashion can move away from the stock and inventory model to an approach more in line with the “pull” paradigm our own Mark Harrop set out in an article published just a few weeks ago:

“The key will be giving visibility to stakeholders.  We can allow factories to receive real-time information from the sales channels, and in return the brand and even the consumer can have live visibility into the entire process.  Has the fabric been cut? Is the product in production? Is the product in transit?  The way to do that is to break manufacturing, which is a complex puzzle, down into small pieces, so that the factory doesn’t just received a finished SKU with a bulk order quantity.  Instead they see all the constituent parts: materials, CAD files, and so on , which gives them the essential data they need to organise and orchestrate the valuable, irreplaceable processes of sewing and assembly.  And this really is key to making just-in-time processes work at scale, because for that kind of responsive production to work, that level of visibility has to be exposed to all stakeholders; factories have to be able to receive inputs from frontend sales channels, and brands have to be able to monitor and control production to respond to shifts in the market.”

We have to recognise, though, that digital transformation on this scale is daunting.  Many brands and retailers continue to manufacture the traditional way because the alternative – completely changing the way the predictable march from design to production works – is an incredibly tall order.  So I was keen to see how Cruz sees the industry getting from here to there.

“We’re seeing this change happening already, and behaviours are changing at every level.  COVID has been an incredible accelerator in that it’s exposed how urgent it is to solve the inventory issue, but realistically that’s always been a problem, and people understand that it needs to be solved.  So what we’re talking about isn’t the factory of the future – it’s the factory of the present in some cases.  We can already guide the flow from ideation to pre-production, then provide factories with the information they need – fed through a simple algorithm – to optimise capacity and replace what software and hardware needs to be replaced.  It may not be mainstream yet, but even if only 10% or 20% of production can change to be more demand-driven, that will be amazing.  And it’s a privilege to be involved in, because it’s not often that you see change on this level happen within an industry.  But fashion has so much inefficiency built in that the need for change is clear.”

When I introduced this two-month focus, I said that fashion was overdue for a new model of production.  I stand by that claim, but I may have underestimated the urgency, and the speed with which the “new reality” is dawning on us.  The factory of the future isn’t just a possibility for tomorrow – it’s a necessity today.