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The factory of the future

  • Published at 06:42 pm November 22nd, 2017
The factory of the future

The term “Industry 4.0” or “factory of the future” was coined by the German federal government in the context of its high-tech strategy in 2011. It describes the integration of all value-adding business divisions and of the entire value chain with the aid of digitalisation.

Industry 4.0 describes four broad disruptions -- increasing data availability and interconnectivity; analytics and business-intelligence capabilities including artificial intelligence; advanced human-machine interactions such as cobots (a collaborative robot that interacts with humans in the workplace); and advanced production methods such as 3D and 4D printing that will transform the entire life cycle of a business’s product, from customer orders to after-sales service.

The shift is already underway in advanced manufacturing industries like automotive, food, pharmaceuticals etc. The transformation which shifts the manufacturing process from a patchwork of isolated silos to nimble, seamless, fully integrated system of systems (SoS), matching end user requirements in the manufacturing, refers to the factory of the future.

Consumers nowadays are not only fashion-conscious, but are increasingly looking for the perfect fit. They seek apparel and fashion products that support their individual biomechanics through customisation.

This trend is further propelled by higher consumer purchasing power, especially in primary export markets to which our country delivers. Combined, body scanning sensors and CAD not only provide the perfect fit to the consumer, but also permit extremely fast delivery, which is further accelerated through 3D printing.

The clothing sector has also been able to take advantage of body scanning for measurements, and digital printing for assistance with accurate and rapid production.

Body scanning technology is an especially attractive technology, as it customises clothes in ways that internet ordering and off-the-shelf purchases cannot accomplish. Body scanning will only become more commonplace with time.

For instance, Brooks Brothers, an early industry adopter of body scanners, indicates that their cost declined by 60% from 2001 to 2010. The efficiency and continuous cost reduction of such mass customisation technology -- if accelerated with additional innovation like 3D printing, computerised production and automated packing -- will transform manufacturing as well as the supply chain and logistics which surround it.

This trend is further propelled by higher consumer purchasing power, especially in primary export markets to which our country delivers

Seamless tech and sewbots

Recently, researchers successfully prototyped smart clothes -- apparel enhanced with electronic and digital capabilities (eg smart shoes that provide health metrics and measure distances travelled). Moreover, advancements in nanoparticle research have introduced nanoparticle-infused clothes that are waterproof, stain-proof, UV protecting and/or odourless.

Indeed, market experts predict that wearable electronics business will increase from $20 billion in 2015 to $70bn in 2025.

In addition, larger textile and apparel brands are implementing more environment-friendly manufacturing techniques to reduce the amount of water consumed, chemicals used and material waste produced.

Nike’s Flyknit running shoes are made with 80% less waste than the typical Nike design. In 2010, Levi’s developed the industry’s first “waterless” jeans (called Water<Less) that involves a set of manufacturing processes that reduce up to 96% of the water used.

Another technology demonstrated increasingly in apparel factories is non-sewing (stitchless) technology, or seamless technology.

Seamless technology involves a special type of glue that fuses layers of fabric together. Reports show that seamless methods reduce production time by 25 to 35% less than cut-and-sew methods and reduce the labour input required.

The result is a clothing piece that is sew-free, or seamless. For special functionality clothing, such as sports or active outdoor wear, a complete light-weight, waterproof clothing is possible because there are no seams to lock in moisture once the clothing encounters rain or water.

Automated cutting machines are now becoming a widely available technology. In addition to increasing productivity through reduced time and labour input, automated cutting “de-skills” the task, as manual cutters -- who are considered relatively higher skilled workers at factories -- are no longer needed.

Robots capable of sewing -- called “sewbots” -- will soon change the calculus of apparel production. In 2015, Softwear Automation Inc launched LOWRY, a robot built with machine vision and computing technologies that automates fabric handling.

Working in parallel with LOWRY, Softwear Automation will introduce an automated sewing machine (ASM) that can run on a continuous basis without a human operator by end of 2016.

Innovative technology at the sewing stage is pushing apparel production to what seemed impossible in the past -- sewing robots automating the more difficult and labour-intensive tasks in garment-making.

Sewbots are unlikely to displace current workers in developing world garment factories, but more likely to be deployed in destination markets such as China, Europe, and the US. The disruptive impact on the sector could be very substantial; as robotic automation becomes more prevalent, it could pose a significant threat of job displacement.

Particularly, a strong case can be built for re-shoring if the total cost of using sewbots proves more economical than sourcing from off-shored countries, with direct savings accumulated in shipping and duty, and wider benefits of reduced reputational risk associated with regards to unfavourable working conditions in factories, or worker safety and fair wages etc.

Fast fashion

A production model that has been in existence for about two decades, fast fashion uses modern technology to keep pace with consumer’s on-demand lifestyles by combining short production and distribution lead time and offering highly fashionable design.

Enterprises like Zara have invested in many in-house technological capabilities such as high-tech equipment that enables factories to adjust for changes in production volume. Additionally, electronic ordering devices are used by store managers to transmit orders directly to Zara’s headquarters.

This real-time information flow helps shift production capacity as needed and brings flexibility to manufacturing.

So, can we sustain our industry by supplying commodity items in the longer run? Do we have a strategy? Do we see the importance of getting prepared for next phase of industrialisation in Bangladesh? Can we continue to use our legacy systems? What skills and abilities are required to cope successfully with the transition from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0?

I want to leave you with these questions that we need to to think about. But more importantly, I would urge you to introspect and consider whether we have the right mindset needed to move in the right direction -- to not only survive, but thrive in the future that awaits us.

Mostafiz Uddin is Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited.