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!

US Continues to Lose Textile and Apparel Manufacturing Jobs in 2017

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It may disappoint those who are hoping a return of textile and apparel manufacturing jobs in the United States. But according to latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313 and 314) and apparel industry (NAICS 315) respectively lost another 4,100 and 10,100 jobs in 2017.  Between January 2005 and December 2017, 44.2% and 56.3% of jobs in the U.S. textile and apparel sectors were gone.  

From the academic perspective, a sizable return of textile and apparel manufacturing job in the United States seems to be extremely unlikely given the nature of the U.S. and the global economy in the 21st century.

Notably, the rising import is found NOT a significant factor leading to the decline in employment in the U.S. textile industry (NAICS 313). As estimated by a US International Trade Commission study in 2016, imports were found only contributed 0.4 percent of the total 7.6 percent annual employment decline in the U.S. textile industry between 1998 and 2014. Instead, more job losses in the sector were caused by: 1) the improved productivity as a result of capitalization and automation (around 4.6 percent annually); and (2) the shrinkage of domestic demand for the U.S. made textiles (around 3.5 percent annually).

And consistent with the prediction of classic trade theories, as capital and technology abundant developed country, the United States, not surprisingly, continues to lose its comparative advantage in making labor-intensive apparel. Hypothetically, apparel “Made in the USA” may come back if apparel manufacturing can be substantially automated like textile manufacturing. However, net job creation in the sector as a result of automation is hard to tell. Additionally, most U.S. apparel companies heavily rely on global sourcing and non-manufacturing activities such as branding, marketing, and design today. Few companies still regard “manufacturing” a key competitive advantage or an area of strategic importance to invest in the future.

Related reading: Creating High-Quality Jobs in the U.S. Textile and Apparel Industry (UD Biden Institute)

Trade Issues Facing the U.S. Apparel and Retail Industry

Panel:

  • Steve Lamar, Executive VP at the American and Apparel Footwear Association (AAFA)
  • Jon Gold, VP of Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF)
  • Robert Antoshak (Host), Managing Director at Olah Inc.

Topic discussed

  • Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
  • Trump’s trade policy agenda
  • What’s going on in the retail market?
  • Technology and the future of apparel supply chain
  • US labeling requirements and a return of Made-in-USA

Outsoucing and “Made in USA” An Ongoing Debate

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The following questions are proposed by students enrolled in FASH455 Spring 2016. Please feel free to leave your comment and engage in our online discussion.

L.L Bean: A Business Model for “Made in USA”?

L.L. Bean has been a strong business for hundreds of years, yet recently their sales of Bean Boots have skyrocketed because they are now seen as trendy. Even though L.L. Bean’s orders and demand has gone up, they still somehow manage to have their products being handmade, sourced locally, and all in the US.

#1: Can L.L. Bean become a model for other businesses looking to manufacture in the US? How has L.L. Bean managed to keep this business model up for so many years and why have they not changed or decided to outsource? 

#2: Why doesn’t L.L Bean look into other American cities for manufacturing options so they do not lose productivity by being exclusively made in Maine?

#3: Do you think it would be beneficial for L.L. Bean to outsource to foreign companies for their manufacturing? Would there still be as high of a demand if these boots were manufactured abroad?

Outsourcing v.s. “Made in USA”

#4: It is said that one reason why American brands choose to offshore their manufacturing is because there isn’t as many cutting edge machines readily available in the States as in other countries. Is it realistic for the American manufacturing market to invest in these machines for domestic manufacturing? If so, how can America make sure to stay relevant with these technologies and not fall behind as we have currently?

#5: One aspect commonly mentioned throughout these readings was the lack of skilled labor in the US in the fashion industry. Is the decrease in skilled areas, such as shoemaking and needle trade, due to the increase in skilled labor overseas? Are these professions considered outdated for young Americans to be learning? How can we jumpstart a desire for young people to take up these skills once again?

#6: One major problem the US has been facing regarding keeping production domestic has been the lack of skilled workers to work in factories. Is the cost of providing training to interested workers too high? Should it be required that all fashion majors should take a sewing class? Where does the decision to train apparel workers begin?

#7: Many American manufacturers refrain from manufacturing in the United States because it is too expensive because more people are formally educated and are not willing to work for a low wage, but only 15% of respondents actually are working towards that. Is it realistic to reach out to homeless communities looking to get back onto their feet to see if they would work in factories? Would this help promote American manufacturing and decrease importing?

#8: In today’s fast paced fashion world, trends come and go rather quickly. The striking disadvantage of manufacturing overseas is the slow turnaround time which could be up to 3-5 months. By manufacturing domestically, turnaround can be as quick as 2 weeks. Why do the majority of fashion companies still choose to manufacture overseas when there is a possibility the trend could be over by time they reach store shelves (Thus, a lack in profit)? When will trend pressures become too much for overseas production?

#9: Is it even worth it to bring manufacturing back to America if it is not benefitting the workers and creating jobs? If manufacturing in the US is simply machine based, what is the point of doing so when it could be cheaper elsewhere and benefit countries that need the jobs?

[Discussion is closed for this post].

The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors


The video echoes one recent Wall Street Journal article about Levi Strauss using automation technologies to revamp their apparel production in China:

“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.”

Welcome for any comments and discussion questions.

What Might Apparel Sourcing in the 3D-Printing Era Look Like?

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(photo credit: WGSN)

Wearing 3D-printed apparel is no longer a dream (see the pictures above)! But what is the implication of 3D-printing technology on apparel sourcing? Here is my personal vision:

First, 3D printing may create brand new T&A supply chains and business models. 1) Because 3D printing is highly technology and capital intensive with little input from low-skilled labor, it implies that developed countries rather than developing countries may enjoy the comparative advantage in manufacturing 3D-printed apparel. 2) Because apparel will be directly printed by machines, cross-the-border transportation can be largely reduced in the 3D printing era, generating potential cost-saving opportunities both for manufacturers and consumers. 3) 3D printing will empower consumers to more directly involve in the product development process. Yet given consumers’ limited technical knowledge and equipment, many new types of customer services ranging from design assistance to on-site apparel printing may emerge in the 3D printing era.

Second, 3D printing may result in a more sustainable T&A supply chain. 1) Because 3D printing is digital-based, it may help reduce waste during the product development process. 2) Because 3D printing is highly customized and can produce on-demand, it may result in less overproduction in the textile and apparel (T&A) industry. 3) 3D printing has the potential to be made by recycled material. 3D printed apparel itself may be recycled as well, resulting in almost zero carbon emission in the whole product life-cycle.

However, 3D printing my create new challenges for apparel sourcing. 1) When 3D printed apparel substitute traditionally-made apparel among ordinary consumers, demand for apparel sewing workers will be substantially reduced. Millions of unskilled or low-skilled workers currently employed in the T&A sector may have to find new jobs. 2) Workforce in the T&A industry may have to substantially update their knowledge structure in the 3D printing era. The T&A industry may even be short of talents for certain positions such as 3D printing designers and engineers. 3) The application of 3D printing will require an update of the current legal system to better address issues such as intellectual property right protection, consumer privacy protection and data security in a digital-based context.

What is your vision for the future of apparel sourcing in the 3D-printing era?

Sheng Lu