Industry 4.0 is the latest stage in the evolution of global manufacturing where digital technologies are being used to respond to changes in consumer demand driven by our ‘on-line’ society. Customers are increasingly demanding new and more customised products within days or even hours. The impact of this accelerating trend is now becoming clearly visible across the retail sector with the rapid growth of online purchasing and delivery operations and the major decline in high street retailing. There is no doubt that the impact of these changes in customer demand and the adoption of new digital technologies will be equally significant further ‘upstream’ in the supply chain.  Textile and apparel manufacturers who adopt digital technologies to provide more customised products faster and more efficiently will thrive.  Those that don’t do so risk becoming noncompetitive.

Key Areas

Within the sector, traditional planning and business models mean that bringing a new product to market can take 12 months or more.  Many apparel manufacturers are now looking to transform their supply chains using the latest digital technologies where an Industry 4.0 approach will incorporate the entire life cycle of production from concept to post-retail. This will have a rapid impact on the textile manufacturing sector. The headline benefits associated with new digital technologies, production efficiency, faster speed to market and general cost reduction are prime motivators but associated potential benefits offer new levels of efficiency.  These include improved use of computer aided design (CAD) technology; digital textile printing, digital colour management, pressing and finishing along with improvements at every stage of data management, management information systems and ‘smart’ factories. Digitisation will enable manufacturers to improve productivity and efficiency and create new, higher-value employment opportunities for their employees, potentially at the expense of jobs that were traditionally done manually.

An early example of the Industry 4.0 approach in the apparel sector:  Li & Fung:[1]

This global apparel supply chain management and logistics business has partnered with a US company offering robotics technology that can make a t-shirt every 22 seconds – twice as fast as manual sewing. Li & Fung use Softwear Automation’s ‘sewbot’ technologies in a move the businesses say is aimed at accelerating the full digitisation and automation of the garment manufacturing process. The partnership will initially focus on the supply chain of t-shirts, with the potential to expand to other product categories in the future. Softwear Automation’s Chairman and CEO has said “Consumers demand to get things faster, quicker and more unique than ever before is only increasing. Together with Li & Fung, our revolutionary Sewbots will enable the speed needed for on demand, made-to-measure manufacturing, at scale.”

Spencer Fung, Li & Fung’s CEO has aspirations to take the whole supply chain digital.  The company’s transformation has a focus on 3D design and virtual sampling.  While their traditional product development process, from idea to product takes an average of 40 weeks, they believe virtual sampling can dramatically speed up the process by eliminating the need for physical samples. Fung also intends to take their fabrics digital and to create one of the world’s largest material libraries. ‘The end result, where everything is digital is data’ says Fung who aims to be the first to create an end to end stream of supply chain data ‘from the cotton field to the consumer. When you can do that, the results will be enormous in terms of improving costs, efficiencies, speed and end to end traceability’.

In November 2017 the UK government launched a new Industrial Strategy, based on 4 Grand Challenges ‘focused on the global trends which will transform our future’.[2] The first of those Challenges is ‘growing Artificial Intelligence and the data driven economy’. The launch of the UK strategy was informed by a period of consultation where Professor Juergen Maier, CEO Siemens UK was commissioned to undertake an Industrial Digitalisation Review to identify how UK manufacturing could be transformed through the adoption of industrial digitalisation technologies. Professor Maier’s review report contained a section on ‘Reinvigorating leadership in British fashion and advanced textiles’.  In that section, the review suggested:

“The specific characteristics and opportunities in the UK textiles sector create an excellent prospect for the application of digital technologies for value creation in the sector. Technical textiles open up new market opportunities for an innovation rich UK textiles sector. Materials and process modelling and digitised process control and verification will enable rapid growth of this sector. At the same time, provenance of textiles is of increasing importance to consumers with respect to ethics of supply and also marketing built on UK source and branding. Digital traceability of raw material through to finished and supplied product will enhance product value for UK made fabric and products and open up opportunities for the UK textiles supply chain. Furthermore, Cut Make Trim (CMT) is a largely manual process relying on skilled but low cost often part time labour. Targeted automation of the sewing process and other aspect of CMT could transform productivity and open up increased capacity addressing current skills shortages.”

Professor Stephen Russell of the University of Leeds has developed an academia/industry partnership that is proposing to launch a Digitally Enabled Design and Manufacturing initiative in textiles and fashion, aiming to create a new designer-led, digitally-enabled design and manufacturing platform for the UK fashion industry to deliver:

  • Globally-leading agility in the fashion design process supported by new business models.
  • New approaches to creative, cost-effective designer product manufacture capable of mass customisation.
  • New sustainable circular economies that creatively harness innovative manufacturing technologies.
  • Innovative simulation tools for visualisation of aesthetics, advancing internet-enabled design and retail.
  • New industrially-led apprenticeships supporting the development of 21st Century product designers.

The project connects fashion and product design with digital ICTs and textile manufacturing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capabilities to drive creativity and product innovation in the UK industry. Building on the existing creative cluster in designer fashion the project will engage with the Design (product, graphic and fashion design), IT, software and computer services sub-sectors. The over-arching research challenge will be addressed by a series of inter-connected projects with tightly defined objectives and quantifiable deliverables. Each project will be delivered by industry-led Networks with University research collaboration, and will be supported by further investment in infrastructure, facilitation of new multidisciplinary apprenticeships, strengthening links outside the existing cluster to other creative networks. Early projects will include:

Enabling Digitally-Connected Manufacture – led by the needs of designers and supported by technologists, exploring an integrated approach to design and manufacturing centred around computer systems for enabling on-screen 3D content to be brought rapidly in to reality in the form of real designer garments and fabrics, using digitally-linked UK-based printing/weaving and nonwoven technologies including 3D weaving capability. It will explore digitally-enabled printing and associated surface treatment techniques for the late-stage modification of surface texture and handle to drive opportunities for small volume, high speed product customisation. Unlike technology-led approaches, the purpose is to maximise creative opportunities in the development of the new platform, customised product manufacture, greater speed and agility and the creation of new business models.

Enabling Circularity and Design for the End-of-Life – exploring the creative exploitation of emerging technologies capable of improving the environmental sustainability of fast fashion. It will:

  • Include methods that enable surface pattern, colour and digitally printed motifs to be removed from fabrics to facilitate remanufacture, reuse and recycling, using either chemical or mechanical means.
  • Explore the opportunities provided by closed-loop chemical recycling of natural fibres, making possible multiple of utilisation of scarce natural resources within existing value chains.
  • Explore the creative opportunities for the development of new, environmentally sustainable short-life garment designs based on nonwovens, capable of multiple recycling cycles to develop new circular economy and business model opportunities, including recyclable pigment printing technology and fast fashion design with fit for purpose colorants and effect chemistry.

Simulated Aesthetics, Virtual Catwalks and Big Data Enabled Colour Forecasting – based on recently developed methods of characterisation and mathematical modelling, addressing the on-going challenge of visually representing haptics and dynamic drape and aesthetics of fabrics and full garments accurately on digital platforms for designers and to advance opportunities for fashion retail. Exploring new supply chain opportunities for fast fashion and marketing strategies for the 21st Century products.

The Yorkshire-based industry/academic partnership is also proposing to study the textile supply chain, developing a company assessment tool to identify key areas for the introduction of Industrial Digitalisation Technologies and related skills development:

  • Identifying specific areas of skills and knowledge required to prioritise early IDT applications with most potential for early impact;
  • Creating relevant learning content for possible integration with higher level Apprenticeship Standards;
  • Developing an IDT training programme to act as a demonstrator for the rest of the sector.

The provision of practical support to manufacturing companies will be vitally important to enable them to integrate relevant industrial digital technologies into their operations, ensuring the sector becomes a beneficiary and not a casualty of this latest Industrial Revolution.

[1] Summarised from an interview in Drapers magazine December 2017. Further details on Li & Fung’s approach can be viewed via, for example.

[2] Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future: