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The Case for a 2-sided Approach to Supply Chain Efficiency

There is no denying the seriousness of the state of the world today. We have witnessed the global ramifications on our health, economy, and resources. As we forge ahead into whatever the new normal will look like, we can choose to either feed the fear OR, we can choose a different path. For most brands, retailers and manufacturers, there is no time better than now for businesses to recalibrate the way we collaborate, manufacture, and drive PROFIT through increased efficiency.

COVID-19 decimated the standard supply chain for many apparel companies. Countries like Bangladesh were hit hardest by the pandemic and it remains to be seen how significant the damage has been as we move into 2021. While the initial reaction from many was, “we need to move out of China” that did not happen, nor will it happen. It takes years and a lot of pain to develop relationships with reliable suppliers in any country, therefore the concept of just picking up and moving, is not realistic. With that being said, we can assume that larger plays, like China, Vietnam, and India, will gain back their momentum as we progress into 2021.

However, this does not mean that nothing has changed. We have seen Vietnam become a more strategic partner with heavy investment from both Chinese and Korean companies. There has also been a notable shift to Mexico and Central America in specific product categories like knits and denim. 

Right now, there are five key areas and initiatives that are happening in the market, which are:

  • Supply Chain Transformation
  • Remote Collaboration   
  • Digital Product Development  
  • On Demand Manufacturing of Personalized Products 
  • Localized Manufacturing, Onshoring, and Reshoring

While they’re not all driven by COVID-19, they have been accelerated due to the pandemic.

The need to digitally transform

In recent years, many companies have been addressing efficiency, time to market, digitalization, and collaboration by implementing a variety of technologies. During the pandemic, we saw that companies who had already leveraged the latest technology ended up having a better time adjusting to new ways of working, collaborating and developing products.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen many companies implement PLM solutions to help with internal and external collaboration. Throughout the pandemic, remote collaboration has become more vital during the pandemic and companies who had already implemented a PLM system learned to use it in even more critical ways. For those that delayed implementing PLM, the pandemic pushed them to adopt.

3D technology has also been more widely adopted by apparel companies within recent years, helping to accelerate the reality of Digital Product Development. Today, 3D is being used by designers to help speed up the design process; by pattern makers and technical designers to validate fit and pattern accuracy; by merchandisers to leverage 3D assets for virtual catalogs and even to replace photo shoots. Many fashion companies have also had their suppliers adopt 3D to replace the need for factories to make physical samples in the development process.  This has lowered sample time and cost while speeding up the approval process.

Rethinking the supply chain for on-demand  and customization

We are also seeing some companies move to lower inventory by adopting a demand and supply versus supply and demand model. Additionally, the continued rise of eCommerce, which has been accelerated due to COVID-19, has made consumers want to order customized products online that they can receive the next day. This trend will only accelerate as larger players, like Amazon, offer customized products as low prices and deliver them quickly.

Creating a 2-sided supply chain

While fashion companies have been addressing the supply chain in-house, many still have to work to include their supplier base. While many have begun to include their suppliers by asking them to use 3D for virtual sampling and allowing them to access their PLM solutions for better collaboration and visibility, this is not enough to  create a truly efficient 2-sided supply chain.

Many apparel companies need to look at what can be done to “upgrade” their supplier base to increase efficiency. The technology needed for efficiency at the factory level is much different than what is needed in a New York office,  for example. Let’s take a look at some key areas that can be easily affected to increase efficiency:

  1. Uniform data communication between apparel companies and their suppliers.

There are two common issues with communication we see with brands and suppliers. The first is where the brand and supplier use the same CAD system, but the factory is on a much older version. This causes issues because, as with any technology, very old versions will not be compatible with new versions. Rather than force suppliers to upgrade so all are on the same version, many just “live with it”, creating a good deal of file clean up before production. 

The second scenario is also quite common. In this scenario the brand has one CAD system and the factory has another, which is perhaps the most problematic of the two scenarios. In this scenario, file conversions to .dxf or AAMA, are a must. In many cases, when these files are converted, information is lost or distorted, which again forces the pattern to be cleaned up, and in some cases remake the pattern, in order to make it valid and manufacturable. This issue is often common in the 3D development workflow where the factory has one solution for manufacturing and adopts a 3D solution as mandated by the US brand. The pattern is created in their  manufacturing solution, converted for use in 3D and shared with the brand. However, there can be no confidence that the converted version of the pattern is valid. So, after the 3D approval process is complete, someone again converts the pattern back to use for production, but not before checking it again and cleaning it up. 

Neither of these solutions are effective or efficient which is why a uniform, seamless data flow will always be faster and more reliable than a fragmented one.

  1. Suppliers should be using 3D beyond just virtual samples. 

Factories should be encouraged to use 3D regardless of mandates by US brands. In the early years of 3D adoption, most companies were using 3D to help validate fit and pattern accuracy. Over the years, as the 3D images became more real looking, the focus shifted to more of a design and merchandising tool. The fact is that 3D is  important in both areas of the process. 

3D needs to be considered as a new tool in the development workflow, rather than a “cure all” or a silver bullet that, upon adoption, every production problem disappears. In  the same way that digital patterns became the norm, 3D will absolutely become a normal part of the workflow. At the factory level, they should be using it as a tool for their pattern makers to validate fit in the development process, scale artwork, and even match things like plaids. It should not only be used for virtual sampling. The success of the world’s biggest brands has centered around great fit and consistency. That starts with accurate patterns.

  1. A combination of technology and automation is needed at the factory level. 

A variety of technologies from PLM to 3D are being used at very high levels. While we are talking high-tech on the U.S side, a good amount of the factory base, globally, is way behind in both technology and automation. How many factories have you visited where you see 2 people using a stick to lay fabric across cutting tables and then cutting the same manual way they did in 1998? I can answer that by saying…... a lot. So, high tech on one side and 1998 on the manufacturing side. Do you think automated spreading and cutting would increase efficiency and maybe even help you to ship on time? 

How about fabric efficiency, is that important? Of course, it is. In many countries, fabric cost is the biggest expense in the price of the garment.  Yet, factories are not adopting technology to help with things like fabric roll management or advanced nesting for better fabric usage. They continue on in the “old way” and get the job done. However, the question for brands is, if they had engaged their top suppliers in respect to these changes, how much faster and cost effective would they be?

Revamping the supply chain for efficiency

We need to rethink supply chain efficiency to include our factory partners. If both sides implement the proper technology and automation solutions, it will lead to better collaboration, a more seamless and efficient workflow, and of course, better margins. 

Brands and retailers should be engaging the correct technology and automation partner who can assess and implement the changes that are needed on both sides of the supply chain. This partner must have experience in respect to both automation and technology solutions; have a dedicated team of consultants who have a track record of success; and a global presence to support both sides of the supply chain. Most importantly, the partner you choose must be forward thinking and innovative. Technology is not stagnant. For example, we expect Apple to have one or even 2 new phones per year. The same should be true in this case. You chose your solution to help with the challenges of today, but you choose a partner that will continue to innovate and develop the tools that will continue to make you more efficient and profitable.

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