Since the factory days of the Industrial Revolution, the apparel business has built up a planet-spanning supply chain with an enormous global footprint. Today, many of its manufacturing procedures, relics of its industrial past, have become grossly inefficient, resulting in stockpiles of unused and unworn waste.
Inventor-futurist Pablos Holman thinks we can do better.
On stage at the Singularity University Global Summit, Holman acted as tour guide for the information technologies that are giving humanity the tools to transform almost everything about the way we make clothes. He first describes the exhausting and inefficient journey clothing takes on its way to our dresser drawers:
“Consider a simple t-shirt, your lowest common denominator product. First you grow cotton in one country and then ship it to another country to be beaten down and bleached into something sort of white. Then it’s sent to another country to be spun into yarn, and then shipped to another country to be knit or woven into fabric. Then it’s shipped off to another country to be sewn into t-shirts, and then shipped back to America where we screen print 'team building exercise 1999!' on it. We pay $4.99, wear it one time, throw it in the bottom of the closet, and we’re done!”
Speaking with Holman on the phone about this days later, I can sense his genuine frustration; it sounds as if the apparel industry is a clunky machine waiting to be melted down with a computer hacker approach.
“How can we reform industries like this from the ground up?” he asks me. “We have to start over.”
Holman’s effort at an industry reset is Bombsheller, a small proof-of-concept system that automates the production of almost every aspect of making the graphic leggings the Seattle-based company sells. For now, everything except the sewing is powered by software.
The company relies on a community of artists who submit designs using 3D modeling tools that create a photorealistic picture of how the finished product would look. Those images—leggings that have never actually been made—get uploaded directly onto their online catalogue. Once a customer clicks “buy,” the printer inks on the graphic design, where it’s then cut and sewn by an on-site seamstress. The finished product is then shipped out the next day.
What makes Bombsheller unique for the apparel industry is that they don’t spend a dime until a pair of leggings are sold. That means there’s no waste since they’re not taking on any inventory risk or guessing about market demand. There will never be a need for some warehouse clearance sale at the end of the season. Bombsheller can ship designs to a market of just one person, and according to Holman, that’s a very big deal.
Rapid technological change elsewhere in the industry has already started making its way in, with apparel leaders like Nike and Zara receiving praise for having shrunk their product development time from months to weeks.
While that’s certainly impressive for larger manufacturers, consider that Bombsheller is doing the same thing, on a smaller scale, in only a few hours.
Holman is also keen to point out that he’s built Bombsheller to operate like a software company.
“We put everyone in one building. Our web team, marketing team, the photographers, and the manufacturing team are all in the same place. So, if we need to change something — we just change it, and it takes twenty minutes.”
The way Bombsheller makes its products is also similar to the way software companies build services.
“If you’re Snapchat, you’re probably shipping a new version of your service every day to see what customers like. The way we make our clothing, we can do the same thing. We can send a new version every day and only sell what a customer wants.”
This made-to-order system has only recently become possible now that a suite of new technologies are transforming the apparel landscape. For example, the old apparel industry never had the internet, a technology that many forget is only a few decades old. “No one should take for granted that I now have a way of talking directly to my customers,” Holman says.
Next, consider that the company spends no money to create demos of its hundreds of legging designs or on product photography. Powerful computation powers software co-opted from video game rendering to show people exactly what the product will look like before anything is even made.
Looking ahead, perhaps the biggest innovation headed the way of apparel is robotic sewing. “How long do you think it will be until we have self-driving sewing machines?” Holman asked the audience at the Global Summit.
Sewbo Inc., another Seattle-based startup, recently demonstrated the first robotically-sewn garment, which used an off-the-shelf robotics system that learned how to use a sewing machine. According to the press release, “automation has failed to find a place in apparel manufacturing due to robots’ inability to handle limp, flexible fabrics.” Sewbo stiffens the fabric, making it easier for the robots to handle the clothes.
When automated sewing is more widespread, Holman may deliver on his vision of a fully automated and software-like approach to making clothes. Holman looks to 3D printers for inspiration for what this could be like. “3D printers are programmable factories. It doesn’t care if I make the same thing twice, since it’s just using code. That programmability will allow us to change everything about the way we make things.”
Today, Bombsheller is just a tiny drop in the $1.2 trillion apparel industry ocean. They make a single product into a reasonably-sized market, but they are a far cry from the scale of some other major clothes makers today. Holman is working to explore additional product lines, but until then the big players will continue to dominate with their economies of scale.
In the future, it could become a race to the middle between large firms looking to take on leaner manufacturing processes and upstarts like Bombsheller who can scale up by riding the wave of emerging technologies. Either way, we’re in the midst of a radical transformation in the way we make clothes.
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