Automation Comes to Fashion

Video Discussion Questions:

#1 Why do you agree or disagree with the video that automation will post a significant challenge to garment workers in developing countries such as Bangladesh? How should policymakers react to the challenges?

#2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?

#3 In your view, how will automation affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade?

#4 Why or why not do you anticipate a sizable return of apparel manufacturing to the United States if apparel production can be largely automated?

Additional reading: The robots are coming for garment workers. (WSJ, 2018)

Please feel free to share your views and join our online discussion!

Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

28 thoughts on “Automation Comes to Fashion”

  1. In regard to question four, I do believe more apparel manufacturing will be brought back to the U.S. because of automation. A developed country like the U.S. has the money to afford these machines and one day may be able to produce apparel at the quantity and prices of countries such as Bangladesh. Automation may cause many people in Bangladesh to lose their garment manufacturing jobs, resulting in a shift of apparel manufacturing going to wealthier countries that can develop and produce the technology for machines like the Sewbots.

    1. Great point! But it is also true that most “US apparel companies” are fashion brands and retailers which have almost completely given up manufacturing and relied on global sourcing. What are the incentives for these companies to invest in manufacturing technology instead of more value-added functions such as branding, marketing and retailing?

  2. With the invention of the “Sewbot” what will this mean for apparel and textile industry workers all over the globe? A few questions come to mind: What does this mean for the workforce in the already developed countries such as the US – although there are not a lot of “Made in the USA” factories left, still some stand today. With the United Stated and other developed countries having lots of capital to invest in new technologies, could the “Sewbot” replace the skilled apparel and textile industry workers jobs as well as the so called unskilled labor jobs? What will backers invest their money in? Will they buy into the latest greatest apparel and textile industry technologies where their investment might pay back sooner, or will they invest in a mixture of old school human labor, free trade agreements, and better training programs for the unskilled workers in developing countries?

  3. I have been working more than 25 years in China in Apparel trade and industry. Last year I stopped my factory and almost stopped the business, due to sharp reduce of the business. I believe automation has influenced a lot to the apparel industry in Asia, but China has better situation comparing with other poorer countries like Bangladesh. As early in 2008, China started to transfer the investment from labor intensive industry to capital and technology intensive industry. And during last 30 years, the economic development has brought big change to China and it also offers staffs who work in apparel industry other job opportunity. For sure this kind of technology revolution will hurt more countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam or India, but I don’t agree to the point it will bring back “Made in USA”, or at least this kind of return will not seen in short future. Percentage “Made in USA” will be increased anyway, but industry transformation is not simple to move one or two garment factories, it concerns the whole circle of industry and also massive trained workers.

  4. In regards to question 3, automation will affect the apparel industry greatly. Although I believe there is some time till the automation comes in full effect, it is approaching quicker than we think. Bigger quantities will be able to be produced cheaper when the “sewbots” come alive right here in the U.S.Workers will be replaced, which the video above showed will leave millions jobless in countries such as Bangladesh. These countries will be hit the hardest through apparel trade. Although this may be a disaster for them, this may have the ability to change how the country operates. Bangladesh relies on the textile industry, and it is in a continuous process of each generation of women barely making enough money to feed their families when there considered the bread winners. This will take many years to adjust to, but as they said in the video maybe this will start a revolution where children stay in school to get an education to start to build up the country.

    1. good point! May I ask a follow-up question: if the apparel industry can no longer serve as a tool for industrialization, how can the poorest countries in the world develop their economy and participate in globalization? Notably, not all countries in the world can support a high-quality education system… Interested in your thoughts.

  5. In regards to Question #3, I believe that automation will greatly impact apparel sourcing. With new technologies and innovations, automation and robots will play a major role in the way apparel manufacturing operates. One disadvantage that may occur is the loss of many jobs for factory workers, however these robots could reduce the horrible conditions of factory workers in poor countries.

  6. I think that automation will be a slow but gradually growing idea. Automation right now I think is only available for highly specialized fields such as the military. 3D printing allows for customization, which has a high demand. Gradually, these sew bots and other automation techniques will replace the jobs of workers in poorer countries that do not have the money to invest in automation. I do not believe that automation will hurt jobs in the US apparel industry, it could even create them. With automation, it could cause faster turnarounds on orders. I think that automation can have both a positive and negative impact.

  7. In regards to question 4, I definitely anticipate a sizable return of apparel manufacturing to the United States if apparel production can be largely automated. Being that the U.S. is abundant with capital, it will be able to afford the expensive machinery required for the automation of apparel manufacturing. The developing countries currently manufacturing apparel, such as Bangladesh, are only abundant with labor, and will not be able to move forward with automation. Unfortunately, this will take jobs away from these developing countries and move the manufacture to the U.S. It is quite interesting to see garment manufacturing come full circle and return to the U.S. Developing countries start out abundant with labor and therefore must manufacture. Once education becomes available, countries start to transition to becoming abundant with labor and capital. Then, once a country is educated, they become fully abundant with capital and are able to afford greater technologies, pushing them back to manufacturing.

  8. Q 4. I believe that with the mass use and production using this technology, apparel manufacturing will come back to the US. The reason that manufacturing is typically outsourced is the cost of labor in the production process. The minimum wages are significantly lower in other countries so companies outsource to increase their profit margin. With the widespread use of this technology, around 80% of jobs in apparel manufacturing are made obsolete because technology can do almost everything necessary to produce a garment. Because the US has high capital investment capabilities, it will be easy to move apparel manufacturing back to the US without compromising the bottom line and profit margin because companies do not have to pay these robots for their labor. While I anticipate this technology to grow very slowly in popularity, it think it is feasible for manufacturing to come back to the US very soon at a small scale at the very least.

    1. good point. One follow-up question: in the class, we discussed the smiling curve, which suggests that manufacturing typically contributes the least to the total value of the final product. The investment in automation technologies may require millions of dollars. Even if money is not a problem, why not US fashion brands and retailers choose to invest in other areas (such as design, retailing and merchandising) which can generate a higher return on investments? Also, it is unclear yet whether automation will help lower the production cost of apparel. welcome for any additional comments and thoughts.

  9. Question 2: Automation can solve some social responsibility issues related to poor working conditions, low minimum wages and the overall unfair treatment of factory workers. Although automation may solve such issues, it will create new social responsibility issues within the garment industry. Many poverty stricken countries such as Bangladesh, rely on factory jobs. Automation would eliminate the need for factory workers which would leave many people without jobs. If there are no more factory jobs for the garment industry then perhaps factories for new industries would be established in these underdeveloped countries. The new jobs could also present many of the same social responsibility issues that the garment industry is facing today.

  10. Question #3: Automation of the fashion industry will soon dramatically alter the way we see the supply chain today. Manufacturing will be much more efficient, less expensive and regulated. This use of machines will be taking away jobs from citizens and economic opportunity from less developed countries. By replacing people with machines you are leaving workers with less and less opportunities for lower level jobs. However, maybe it will create other job opportunities for these works like maintenance or shipping with the larger quantities that are being expected.

  11. In response to question 3, I believe that automation will increase efficiency and time in the workplace. In the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade the industry will definitely change and I believe for the better. Although it will leave many workers unemployed, it will increase productivity in the industry.

  12. #2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?
    The growing impact and presence of automation and artificial intelligence threaten the jobs of many people employed by the textile and garment industry. The garment industry will not have to worry about the safety of their employees because they will hardly have any people in factories. For example an incident like Rana Plaza would not be likely to happen because there would not be so many employees in a factory. However the garment industry would not be fulfilling their social responsibility to improve the economy of less developed countries and lives of many employed by the industry.

  13. #2 Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?
    I believe that automation can definitely be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem. Automation will make work less labor intensive and less dangerous, and will require higher technical skills which workers can learn and be challenged by. While some jobs may be threatened, I believe that automation will have an overall positive effect on the industry.

    #3 In your view, how will automation affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade?
    In my view, I believe that automation will affect the big landscape of sourcing in that countries will strive to source from places which put an emphasis on automation because they will be able to produce more quickly and cheaply. Companies will also know that if most of the work is automated, then that place is more sustainable and is focusing on innovation rather than sticking to its old ways.

    -Katherine Kornienko

  14. #4: While the labor costs may have historically pushed apparel manufacturing out of the US, I could easily see a return of apparel manufacturing to the US with the growth of automated production. Purchasing the technology and equipment for automated manufacturing would be very expensive and would require a country with the capital to invest in it. A country like Bangladesh, while it has a large labor force to run manufacturing, does not have the money to purchase the technology for automation. The US would also probably be interested in investing in the technology because it could provide more domestic jobs in IT, engineering, and design. It would also increase the speed to market because manufacturing and consumer purchasing would be occurring in the same region. Unfortunately, this development would hurt the apparel manufacturing industry in Bangladesh and other similar countries. Trade agreements might be necessary to help these countries in the increasingly automated environment.

  15. #2
    Automation cannot be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry. There will always be issues with social responsibility in the industry because of the demands that surround it. We live in a time where people want things right now, as soon as possible. When automation is first integrated fully into the industry it may alleviate some of the effects of the problem of social responsibility. However, once complete automation becomes the norm people will just keep demanding more. They will want more things, faster, and at a better quality. In turn, this will make companies have to find more cost cutting measures and ways to do things even more efficiently, at the cost of the people that work for them and around them. I think that the pressures surrounding the garment industry will make it near impossible for the social responsibility problem to ever be fully solved.

  16. In response to question #3, automation obviously has the negative impact of taking away jobs from workers, but it could also lead to better conditions for workers. Instead of doing things by hand, automation will speed up the production of process. This could lead to less crazy hours worked by the employees and maybe a better quality of life for them. The products will also be of higher quality and will be produced much faster.

  17. Thinking about question 2, I do believe that automation could be a viable solution to some of the issues surround social responsibility in apparel manufacturing. Workers will still need to be employed, perhaps not on the same scale, but the machines will help issues such as: pressure on workers to meet certain quotas, as factories will be able to calculate exactly how long a machine will take to perform an operation and will not be able to push them further. Another place it will help is general production volume, machines will be able to operate as many hours as the factory wants without breaks for bathroom or food. These fully automated machines will also take away some of the danger posed to workers who may injure themselves with traditional sewing machines. Even though the video raises the point that jobs for workers in developing countries could be threatened, I believe that eliminating dangerous low wage jobs may lead to opportunities for better jobs in the future.

  18. #2
    Although I think automation can help the issue of social responsibility in the garment, I don’t think it can fully solve the problem. I believe no matter what that people will always be involved in the process, regardless of the highly developed and advanced machinery. I think less people will have to work in these instances, but will companies then pay them more and make sure they are working in safe, regulated conditions? Or will companies just employee less people, take a larger profit, and continue the same practices regardless of automation opportunities?

  19. Question #2: Can automation be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry?
    I do not believe that automation is going to be a permanent solution because with new automation comes a lack of physical workers, leading to people losing their jobs. It has been said that automation can create a new array of jobs which is true to an extent, however a good majority of those who have lost their jobs to a machine are not considered qualified enough for the new jobs created. Automation can be a good thing to an extent because it helps to solve some of the issues related to poor working conditions or workers being treated unfairly, however in places such as Bangladesh where workers rely on factory jobs, it can be harmful to their economy and the lives of the people who live in those countries.

  20. #2 I do not think that automation can be a permanent solution to the social responsibility problem in the garment industry. While automation helps reduce the risks associated to low wages for laborers, poor working conditions, and the long hours that these workers have to suffer through by using automation, it will negatively impact the people and economy of countries like Bangladesh whose citizens rely heavily on these factory jobs. The garment industry in less developed countries brings in large amounts of capital that can be used to help these countries grow and become more developed. Not only will jobs be lost by continued automation in the garment industry, but also if new jobs do happen to arise the people will not be educated enough in these countries to achieve the skill level needed to operate new machinery or technology advancements.

  21. I am so glad I came across this article, because I am really interested in automation. I think it is probably the most interesting thing about the fashion industry and it’s recent growth of opening up to this type of garment making. During my sophomore year I did a research study on automation and how the fashion industry has truly beginning to flourish because they have given this type of garment working a chance. With this being said I would like to answer discussion question number 3 by saying in my view I believe that automation might affect the big landscape of apparel sourcing and the patterns of world textile and apparel trade but I don’t believe it will change it completely. I feel like with automation you will still need the same amount of resources to create a garment, the amount of sourcing done before automation wont change as drastically as people might assume.

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