Fast-tracking technology uptake beyond Covid

Where once investment in technology was seen as a nice-to-have, the pandemic has fundamentally shifted how companies operate and how they communicate – making it a necessity if they are to continue operating effectively and manage the changes wrought upon them. By Michelle Russell.

"We have seen a lot of changes with both retailers and manufacturers as a result of the pandemic," says Ram Sareen, CEO-founder of fashion technology provider Tukatech. "This was the 'kick in the rear' and wake-up call for the many that felt they were invincible."

3D, customisation, on-demand, microfactories, enhanced PLM, made-to-measure, and digital try-on are just some of the new innovations emerging to help speed up time-to-market, reduce costs and waste, and improve efficiency.

The pandemic effect

"Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of new technologies across industries. This is especially evident in the apparel trade which has traditionally relied on physical interactions," explains Vivek Ramachandran, CEO of Serai, HSBC's apparel trade platform.

"The disruption of travel has forced a change in behaviours. Suppliers have had to find new ways to showcase their products and capabilities, and buyers have had to find new ways to connect with suppliers."

Suppliers have had to find new ways to showcase their products and capabilities, and buyers have had to find new ways to connect with suppliers

- Vivek Ramachandran

Indeed, one of the biggest impacts has been the lack of in-person meetings and travel.

"This has forced everyone to create and design new clothing lines completely virtually," says Brian Rainey, CEO of e-commerce tech company Gooten. "In parallel, there has been a shift to more purchases via e-commerce than in-store, and a growing consumer trend for customised apparel."

Emerging technologies

AI and 3D modelling, in particular, has risen in popularity, allowing manufacturers to offer digital samples and set up virtual showrooms.

"I don't see a world where tens of thousands of people travel across the globe for a two-day trade show returning any time soon," says Serai's Ramachandran. He points to the advent of new technology-led solutions, particularly in the space of supply chain transparency.

Serai recently launched a solution that allows businesses to trace order flow throughout the supply chain, establishing the cotton and yarn going into each garment.

With so much uncertainty still surrounding how the industry will manage through the pandemic and beyond, technology specialists like Gerber have been keen to ramp up innovation. Its recently expanded Shanghai Innovation Center introduced a full made-to-measure workflow that turns orders into final products in less than one hour.

Manufacturers have also been keen to show off their innovative skills. Sri Lanka’s Hirdaramani Group has developed what it says it the world's first sustainably designed smart face mask to use respiration sensor technology.

And for companies keen to integrate technology into the fabric of their operations, there is always M&A. Nike has just acquired data integration platform start-up Datalogue.

The 3D evolution

Yet for all the technologies developed in the last year, 3D design and prototyping tools appear to have picked up the most pace.

"In the beginning it was [a case of] how to make people trust 3D so that it can become a substitute to what they know," explains Avihay Feld, co-founder and CEO of Browzwear. "Now it's about moving more and more portions of the workflow into 3D."

With 3D increasingly taking the place of physical samples, Tukatech has developed "the first feel factor value for fabrics" based on a mathematical calculation using bend and surface friction values in all warp, weft, and shear directions.

3D modelling and digital sampling are also contributing to faster and more effective decisions, less fabric waste, and a smaller carbon footprint.

Fast-tracking to the future

While the technologies now emerging have the ability to turn the apparel industry on its head, there is also a need to upskill the existing workforce for the future.

"The business of designing is in the mud, it's wading, it's back and forth," says Greg Moore, CEO of fit solutions specialist WAIR. "The reality is, when we actually look at the downtime designers have and the factories have...being able to put that workforce towards a more efficient workflow, you're increasing the effective work time of your employees by 50% or more. Automation is real. It is a real part of life, it's going to happen and the reality is, outside of Covid it has generally kept employment in check by upskilling our workforce.

"This is an obligation, we have to make sure our employees are well skilled for the future. If we shirk that responsibility then we leave an entire generation behind. It's a commitment we need to make to the future."

Main image: 3D modelling and digital sampling are contributing to faster and more effective decisions