Beset by pressures and challenges, fashion is facing the realisation that its traditional, offshore, analogue sourcing and production processes have fallen behind the digital transformation that’s happening everywhere else in the industry.

In partnership with NEFFA | New Fashion Factory, who are showcasing a completely new approach to material and method at leading footwear fair MICAM, in Milan, from 19th to 22nd February – and who are also seeking investors and brand partners to join their vision – we set out to explore what a next-generation fashion factory might look like, and why the argument could be so compelling for fashion to move beyond slow, unsustainable sourcing, cutting, and sewing and to explore entirely new possibilities.

For all the progress the industry has made, fashion’s digital transformation is unfinished.

Brands today have a better handle on their product data than ever, and digital channels for communicating that data with in-house users and partners are constantly being built out and refined. Increased adoption of 3D design has generated new ways of bringing ideas to life, and is transforming traditional product photography at the same time as opening the gateway to the possibility space of digital-only fashion.

But despite all that innovation and evolution at the extreme ends of fashion – at the point of creativity, and around the point of sale – a critical hole remains in the middle: material sourcing and manufacturing. Fashion may have found better materials, and the industry may have designed new platforms to coordinate these processes, but the core tasks of procuring and producing have stayed relatively static.

Or to put it another way, material sourcing and manufacturing have fallen behind the curve compared to fashion’s overall digital maturity.

That disparity is plain to see when we compare the analogue supply chain (which sourcing and production serve as two major pillars of) to the digital-native way the rest of the value chain is being rebuilt.

There is a compelling argument for a new generation of fashion factories - which blend a new material and an entirely new method.
image provided by neffa.

Unlike the more agile, adaptable, efficient processes that happen before and after them, sourcing and production are slow, opaque, wasteful, labour-and-resource-intensive, rigid, and configured for mass production that often translates into overproduction.

And a disconnect on a similar scale is visible if we contrast the way sourcing and production work today, with what consumers, regulators, and other stakeholders want the fashion industry to be: fast, transparent, responsive, ethical, innovative, environmentally sound, and geared for variety more than volume.

Not only have the cogs at the centre of fashion started to grind more slowly than the ones that precede and follow them – they’re actively turning against the direction the industry is being asked to go.

What fashion has, in effect, is an “air gap” between the expectations the market has for it, and the otherwise end-to-end digital tools the industry uses to meet those expectations. In information security circles, an air gap refers to a data repository or process that’s disconnected from a wider network: a positive thing for sensitive stores of data, but quite the opposite when the objective is to have a lifecycle that runs digitally, start to finish.

And that air gap is the root cause of all the negative connotations we just described, precisely because it represents an analogue step-down from digital to physical. Fashion may have a new pipeline in its hands to bring untempered creative visions to life in 3D, and to sell them as fully-accurate digital assets, but for the overwhelming majority of physical products, the route to market is full of iteration, interpretation, and inaccuracy.

image provided by neffa.

This is due to the fact that, when it comes to material development, sourcing, and manufacturing, what you see is not what you get – at least not until the product has been through multiple cycles of not meeting its targets in colour, performance, fit, quality, and a host of other metrics. When the only pathway is to translate digital into physical, the end result will always be “close enough” at best.

Here’s where digital-native production comes in. As a vision, it does away with all the translation and uncertainty we just depicted, replacing multiple iterative steps with a single-pass route to ensure that what you see is, in the end, what you get. And if digital production can also be paired with a next-generation material that isn’t subject to the same, similarly-analogue cycle of harvesting, processing, adulteration, treatment, lab dips, reviews, and iterative refinement prior to approval (which is a combination that our partner, NEFFA, is proposing), that promise of a digital single-step could prove to be a leapfrog moment for speed, sustainability, efficiency, and much more.

But fashion is accustomed to much smaller changes, and completely overhauling two of the lynchpins of the product lifecycle represents transformation on an entirely different scale. That sort of sweeping change, though, could be exactly what fashion needs.

The difference between digital iteration and digital transformation

For a long time, fashion has focused on improving the efficiency of traditional manufacturing, through shopfloor control solutions and connected hardware, and by – as we’ve already mentioned – digitising product data, technical specifications, and the other elements that feed into production.

Despite these efforts, there is still a discrepancy between what designers and brands want when they set out to create a new style – which is an open canvas without constraints – and what current sourcing and manufacturing processes are able to accommodate.

Think of it this way: the work that fashion has done to date on digitising its supply chains has been beneficial, but so far it hasn’t moved the needle on the industry’s big ticket issues. From excess inventory and waste, to speed to market and quality, we’ve so far seen mainly incremental improvement.

This creates a strong, industry-wide business case for a genuinely different, digital method of manufacturing, rather than a slightly better way of cutting, sewing, or knitting – all of which have their own inbuilt levels of variability. What fashion needs, if it’s to make more fundamental progress towards its goals, is a full-blown alternative to the current analogue model – one built on speed, exactitude, and automation, and one that delivers it all on-demand, producing precisely what the brand wants, in exactly the amount the market needs.

Robotic application of novel materials is a key way that fashion can look to revolutionise its factories, rather than relying on analogue cutting, sewing, and knitting.
image provided by neffa.

But, by itself, even this won’t be enough. Even if fashion was able to fully digitise and automate manufacturing, an another air gap would still exist in the input to production: raw materials. A lot of effort, industry-wide, has gone into creating better natural materials, and even synthetics that have a smaller environmental footprint, but in isolation these been smaller advances rather than the sort of comprehensive transformation that will be needed to have a more measurable impact on fashion’s requirements for speed, performance, creativity, and sustainability.

Alternative and bio-based materials come much closer, but they only represent part of the puzzle. What fashion needs is a more comprehensive solution that overhauls both the methods and the material at the score of sourcing and production, to create a new model for the supply chain that’s digital at its core, fit for the future, and that can be operated and automated on-demand.

A bold vision? Absolutely.

Worth the effort? If it’s able to push fashion further in a positive direction than it’s been able to go with smaller changes: definitely.

Achievable already? You might be surprised.

The step change of next-generation sourcing and production

It would be easy to assume that a completely novel approach to the fashion supply chain is years away from being realised. But our partner for this story, NEFFA, has put the vision into practice, bringing together new methods and new materials to, as its founders put it, “make sewing obsolete” and deliver precisely the kind of comprehensive transformation the industry needs.

NEFFA FASHION Factory, by Talsand.

NEFFA’s patented “new fashion factory” approach encompasses three stages: 3D design, biomaterial creation, and automated, robotic construction.

Working from designs created and simulated in leading 3D environments, and from body data derived from scans, the process begins with the creation of customised, recyclable, rigid 3D moulds. While those moulds are being generated, the factory is also creating next-generation materials (starting with the proprietary, mycelium-based MYCOTEX) by using food grade ingredients and liquid fermentation to output a material that’s both flexible and futureproof from a sustainability perspective – being waste-free at the point of production as well capable of full circularity.

Finally, those 3D moulds and that new material are brought together in digital production, where the biomass material is directly applied by automated robotic hardware, allowing for innovative, seamless styles to be created from novel materials, using a completely new method – both of which circumvent the speed to market, sustainability, and other negative impacts that characterise traditional, analogue production.

image provided by neffa.

And as befits the idea of an entirely new material and method, the combination of biomass and robotic application allows for designers to create new concepts, shapes, textures and signature elements by carrying the thickness and composition of the material during application. Ideas that were simply impossible to realise with traditional techniques can be unlocked this way, opening the door to greater creative freedom by bringing together digital design, development, and production.

But as interesting as these different components are in isolation, the key distinction is that these are not three separate steps that exist independently of one another in a global, distributed supply chain; they form part of a cohesive whole and can be collocated and inserted into the existing supply chain as a package – providing a quick, centralised digital uplift for sourcing and production networks.

For established manufacturers, this provides an easy onramp to automation, as well as helping to speed a transition to digital, on-demand that would otherwise be extremely time-consuming. And for producers that are working to bring manufacturing back into (or near to) consumption markets, the ability to deploy material creation, digital design, and automated on-demand production close to the consumer offers a leapfrog opportunity. Rather than taking high-volume orders, holding inventory in warehouses, and relying on complex international logistics networks to fulfil orders on time, producers can make what’s needed, where it’s required, and increase their chances of making the on-demand model profitable.

And from a supply chain orchestration perspective, the ability to run processes concurrently rather than sequentially represents a significant leap over traditional supply chains. In traditional, analogue networks, development and sourcing of key materials must take place prior to production – creating an inbuilt bottleneck that is a prime contributor to the long lead times that define non-digital sourcing and production.

What might a new, next-generation fashion factory look like?

This would count for little, though, if the new fashion factory still needed to fall back on other fabrics to complete a finished product – since those would come burdened with their built-in time, cost, environmental, and creative constraints. But this impact could be minimal with NEFFA, since the MYCOTEX material can be stiffened and reinforced in designated areas (something that isn’t possible with traditional fabrics), obviating the need for separate materials to support, embellish, and enhance.

With anything completely new, the logical question is how scalable it is. Fashion, after all, is currently littered with pilots in alternative materials and experiments in different means of production, but the majority of these are not market-ready in a way that will deliver a difference to fashion’s digital transformation in a meaningful timeframe.

According to its founders, NEFFA is proven in high-end and luxury applications, but a partnership with DESMA (one of the world’s largest companies in automated, robotic footwear production) is set to really road test the new fashion factory approach through full-on production in the very near future.

If that large scale test is successful, then the argument for embracing a sweeping change to material and method could become extremely compelling. By replacing the air gap of traditional analogue sourcing and production with a digital, on-demand alternative, brands could potentially free themselves of the burden of excess inventory and deadstock, reduce returns through custom fit, sell-in to consumers using digital assets with confidence that what the buyer sees is what they’ll get, and capitalise on huge increases in speed and sustainability.

For a long time, fashion has settled for digitising everything around sourcing and production, but leaving the core infrastructure of fashion untouched. Increasingly, though, the industry has begun to recognise that the way it makes product has fallen out of lockstep with what brands, consumers, and regulators are demanding. NEFFA, the new fashion factory, by promising a comprehensive replacement for both material and method, is aiming to make that established infrastructure – that analogue step-down from the digital lifecycle – look antiquated.

If we are living through a new age of fashion (which a lot of commentators, The Interline included, would say we are) then arguably the time for a new generation of factory is already upon us – and NEFFA are seeking both investors and brand partners to usher in that new generation.

Visit NEFFA at MICAM, in the Footwearology booth, in Hall 1, where Co-Founder Nicoline van Enter will be showcasing the company’s latest prototypes and samples.

image provided by neffa.

About our partner: NEFFA® | New Fashion Factory is the ground breaking automated manufacturing method allowing for custom products made from biomaterials, starting with MYCOTEX. Biomass is robotically applied around affordable, configurable and recyclable 3D moulds. This patented process gives you unprecedented design freedom to create silhouettes and textures that were never possible before with traditional manufacturing processes, all while guaranteeing a perfect fit.

NEFFA® is a holistic, digital, biological and circular solution for the full fashion supply chain, finally making it possible and profitable to locally manufacture beautiful home-compostable garments, footwear and fashion accessories on demand and in a fully automated way.