“In an apparel factory in Zhongshan, a gritty city of three million stuffed with industrial parks across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, lasers are replacing dozens of workers who scrub Levi’s blue jeans with sandpaper to give them the worn look that American consumers find stylish. Automated sewing machines have cut the number of seamstresses needed to stitch arc designs into back pockets. Digital printers make intricate patterns on jeans that workers used to do with a mesh screen.”
One important factor that gives a push to adopting robots in China’s factory floor is the end of very cheap labor in China. China’s wage level has been rising in double-digit percentages for the past decades. And as a consequence of its “one-child policy”, by 2050, the working-age population in China could decline by 212 million according to estimation from the United Nations.
But Levi executives say they have largely abandoned a strategy of relocating production to one impoverished country after another, known as “chasing the needle,” in favor of other forms of cost-cutting.” “Labor is getting more expensive and technology is getting cheaper,” says Andrew Lo, chief executive of Crystal Group, one of Levi’s major suppliers in China.
“Levi is adapting its laser technology so it can etch different patterns to make one type of denim look like another, reducing costs by buying less fabric. For a new line of women’s wear, Levi said it needed only 12 fabrics, rather than 18. In the past three years, Levi said, it cut the number of its suppliers by 40% and the number of fabrics by 50%.”
“The changes also give Levi greater flexibility, said Ms. O’Neill, the 44-year-old executive who helps oversee the company’s supply chain. If a pair of jeans using a particular fabric is selling well, she says, Levi can use lasers to produce more of the desired look, and pare back designs that are losers. “The idea is to delay decision-making for as long as possible,” said Ms. O’Neill.”
And this is only the beginning! Some technologists think that inventions such as 3-D printing—essentially printers that replicate solid objects like copiers reproduce printed pages—will have a big impact by 2050. In such a world, printers could spew out clothing, food, electronics and other goods ordered online from a nearly limitless selection, with far fewer workers involved in production.
“In 2050, you could potentially have a 3-D printer at home that could produce all the fabrics you want,” said Roger Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s TAL Group, which makes 1 of every 6 dress shirts sold in the U.S. for brands from Banana Republic to Brooks Brothers. “That would make us obsolete.”
Ironically but not surprisingly, automation also keeps wages down. Levi said it expects China production to rise only “modestly” next year; new orders are up for grabs. Apparel InternationaI’s president, Oscar Gonzalez, says the company now boasts an advantage over China—a large pool of apparel workers who were laid off in past downsizings. Excess labor has helped him keep wage increases to 2% or 3% a year he says. “Every Monday when we recruit,” he adds, “there are long lines of applicants.”
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