When news broke in late 2017 that Amazon had been awarded a patent for a system that would enable it to manufacture custom-fitted clothing, industry insiders touted the new development as the future of both on-demand apparel and the flexible manufacturing processes that make its production possible.
According to Amazon’s press release, “Once various textile products are printed, cut, and assembled according to the orders, they can be processed through a quality check, photographed for placement in an electronic commerce system, shipped to customers, and/or stored in a materials-handling facility for order fulfillment. By aggregating orders from various geographic locations and coordinating apparel assembly processes on a large scale, the embodiments provide new ways to increase efficiency in apparel manufacturing.”
However, these efficiencies are not as easily achieved by smaller players as they are by Amazon.
The garment industry has long been plagued by inefficient supply chain processes, though this is changing. Mounting consumer expectation for on-demand availability as exemplified by Amazon is forcing more manufacturers to adopt more efficient, flexible approaches to satisfy customers and remain competitive.
It is not uncommon for this adjustment to entail a complete restructuring of the supply chain and production process, since the mass-scale manufacture of garments is qualitatively different from small-scale item production, requiring scalable processes that can flexibly fulfill both high- and low-volume orders—no easy combination to achieve.
Mass customization also poses supply chain challenges in terms of effective use of existing manufacturing facilities. Garment factories operate on peak production cycles that precede the season for which garments are brought to market (with fall-winter collections produced in spring, and spring-summer collections produced in autumn). Altering an existing facility to achieve on-demand production capability risks interruption of these cycles and requires significant investments in both technology and labor, the forging of brand partnerships, and well-coordinated strategic planning and experienced execution to achieve a successful transition without compromising profits in the process.
Another challenge of on-demand customized clothing relates to the availability of cheap labor, which has driven garment manufacturers overseas in search of affordable solutions. But this challenge too is being overcome and once again localized through automation, as seen with Adidas’ use of “sewbots” that are capable of making 800,000 T-shirts a day in its humanless factory in Arkansas.
The advantages of on-demand manufacturing represent a win-win proposition for both consumers and manufacturers, with the former getting a customized product and the latter virtually eliminating waste, excess inventory, and accounts-receivable risk.
For companies that successfully adopt the flexible manufacturing operations necessary to penetrate or remain competitive in this prime market space, the coming future of on-demand, customized apparel looks exceptionally bright.
If you’re aiming for greater flexibility in your manufacturing operations or are looking to bring a product to market, we at Pivot can help, with more than forty years of expert experience in helping manufacturers optimize their operations and in helping businesses to successfully launch new products. Contact us today and see what we can do for you.