The apparel supply chain is filled with lots of pain points, potential bottlenecks and costly redundancies, making it ripe for innovation. And the turmoil the industry is facing is making it a lot more interested in new ideas and willing to change. From fibers to the last mile, technology is giving us the opportunity to streamline operations, reduce errors, create more accurate assortments and improve consumer experiences.
Here, two supply chain experts lend some perspective to the innovations hogging the headlines (think: drones and blockchain), highlight some out-of-the-box solutions and provide an aspirational look at what could be.
Tasha Lewis, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s Fiber Science and Apparel Design department, sees technology as a way for retailers to use employees more strategically, allowing them to achieve the experiential environments needed to entice today’s consumers. “Moving the employee from just maintaining merchandise to really being able to spend time with the customer could be very valuable and could be achieved through technology,” she said. Retailers need to figure out how to “remove pain points for customers but also really enable employees to do their jobs better by removing the mundane, routine things.”
Dale Rogers, a logistics and supply chain management professor at Arizona State University, agrees that delegating the dull tasks to technology would free people up to do more complex or relationship-based activities. He’s already seeing this developing in the semiconductor industry and envisions applications for apparel as well. “By applying cognitive technology and machine learning to procurement, we could automate solutions, handle schedule issues, find sources by web scraping and deal with structured and unstructured data,” he said, adding it would change the workforce. “You’ll need less buyers, but you’ll use them more strategically.”
[Read more about how retailers are ramping up: KPMG: Tech Investments Seen as Roadmap for Consumer Engagement]
The technology we need to do this exists and is already being tested in other industries, he said. Take WAZE, the app that helps drivers avoid getting stuck in traffic, as well as self-driving cars. Those innovations could be applied to the supply chain. “WAZE allows you to see that coming and divert. With autonomous vehicles, which have a lot of AI in them, your car talks to another car and together they figure out a strategy [for avoiding a collision] in a few milliseconds,” Rogers said. “The supply chain is full of lots of people making ad hoc decisions on the fly because of some event.” The recent hurricanes are a good example of unforeseen situations that arise requiring a lot of recalibrating by a lot of people, including figuring out how to reroute goods. “In the future, that will be more automated,” he predicted.
In terms of other tech that could have new applications, Lewis points to the nanotechnology that’s currently used to tag fibers to provide transparency throughout the supply chain. She envisions uses for it that would allow garments to have a better post-consumer life. “There’s a great opportunity in creating a closed loop cycle, making new things from old things. Is there technology that allows us to reverse the supply chain and take this [product] apart and reuse it in another product?” she said, adding this is where the nanotech comes in. “A lot of times [clothing] labels disappear but if we could identify that this is wool and polyester then it could become a chair or something.”
Though online shopping is blamed for many of retail’s current ills, it could also provide a few solutions. “Google is getting into fashion data science and analytics and monitoring trends, and they’re able to do it just based on how we query,” Lewis said. “They get a lot of data about where trends are starting and merging. This has traditionally been the space of our fashion forecasting services. It’s very powerful and timely.”
Taking it one step further, Rogers said we’re now able to analyze large amounts of unstructured data like social media comments. “A large computer company that sells to gamers is trying to figure out if a new peripheral will sell and how much of it might sell so they’re looking at comments on YouTube videos. With AI, they get a model of what could be a demand pattern for specific types of products,” he said. The same could be done in apparel. If, for instance, a footwear brand saw a demand for high tops with retro detailing, the company could rush those styles into production with a fair amount of certainty that they’d sell.
While they both see a lot of potential for innovation to occur throughout the supply chain, there are some technologies that they’re not sure will live up to their hype. Lewis said wearables are fizzling because we’ve yet to deliver products that are useful and non-invasive. The challenge is also how to get these products made. “Our factories are not set up to build computers and garments and so how do we make wearables in the same space and make them meaningful for people?” she said.
[For more on wearables’ future: BF+DA Panel Weighs Wearables’ Challenges—And Potential Solutions]
Lewis also isn’t sold on drones—at least in consumer-facing applications. She likens them to Google Glass, because she sees these vehicles having many of the same privacy issues that tanked the tech eyewear. Rogers said he too was skeptical of drones but has since been won over by Starship, an Estonian company that makes wheeled drones, which are currently in use in London. Both Lewis and Rogers agree the UPS roof-top drones that are deployed for short distances could have a future.
When it comes to blockchain, Rogers is optimistic, but he does see some potential drawbacks. The tamperproof digital ledger records every participant and step along a process, providing transparency to everyone along the supply chain—making its chief benefit a potential problem, he said. “There are a lot of uses for blockchain around supply chain but the problem is companies aren’t going to want to transaction information related to costs and prices on a distributed ledger system where your info is shared, even if it’s encrypted, on servers that may or reside at your competitor,” he said.
Ultimately drones, and maybe blockchain and other emerging technology, could take awhile to realize their full potential, and that’s to be expected, Rogers said. “Bill Gates said this a long time ago, there’s the 2 Ten Rule, which is that there is two years of excitement about a new technology, but then it’s 10 years before it’s really useful,” he said, citing RFID and AI as two examples.
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