Labour dilemmas remain as apparel embraces industry 4.0

There are exciting opportunities from garment customisation and automation technologies but can existing workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere avoid being left behind?

A whole new set

The automation of manufacturing processes is nothing new. Developing control systems for industrial machinery creates energy savings, a reduced need for spare parts, lower maintenance costs, and reduced alterations. Having more sophisticated machinery leads to efficiencies and better production accountability.

In textile and apparel factories, increasing mechanisation of processes has always been part of the sector’s development. It allows manufacturers to cope with designing multiple styles in short runs and managing stock levels, while improving delivery times and boosting the quality and consistency of garments.

Of course, at the core of these benefits is reduced cost. Increased mechanisation has been driven by a desire to reduce manpower. And the latest era of manufacturing and increased automation – “industry 4.0” – includes a host of innovations from industrial-scale “internet of things” and augmented reality, to machine-to-machine communication in knitting machines, and 3D printing.

Customisation demands 

So, what does this mean on-the-ground? A fragmented regional picture is emerging. 

According to Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, basic automation has taken root, even in the mass-market manufacturing factories from where many apparel brands source – factories where labour has been traditionally emphasised as a strength. For example, using a jacquard machine to make sweatshirts is a must now, she says.

For many manufacturers, keeping up with customer requirements – to turn products around quickly, to ensure quality and increased design customisation – is the factor that will drive the demand for better and more sophisticated automation. “Every supply chain player wants speed, flexibility, and data transparency, so digitisation and automation are natural strategies,” says Pamela Mar, executive vice-president of knowledge and applications at Fung Academy, the learning and innovation arm of the Fung Group, a Hong Kong-based supply chain manager for a range of US and EU brands.

Customers also want granularity, with more and more bespoke designs. Fung Group has been experimenting with customised shirt-making, made to measure garments that use a digital scan of a person’s body. “These are produced in a semi-automated sewing line at one of our factory partners,” says Mar, pointing to the rapid response, lower labour costs, and greater precision afforded by automation. “It is on the road to mass customisation.”

Shifting sourcing geographies

The impact on labour costs has also had, of course, a profound impact on where garments can realistically be made. Take the example of the Chinese apparel firm Tianyuan Garments. It recently invested more than $20m in a factory in Little Rock, Arkansas in the US. While it has taken on 400 staff, it also uses 24 robots capable of producing one T-shirt every 30 seconds without any need for human intervention. According to Bloomberg, the company will have the potential to make 23m shirts a year at a cost of $0.33 per shirt, all on US soil.

Similarly, sportswear giant adidas has developed highly automated “speedfactories”. They boast production speeds three times faster than in the company’s traditional Asian plants, employing hundreds rather than thousands of people.

This onshoring or nearshoring of production has grown in popularity, particularly in the US, with more brands no longer being drawn to the cheap cost of labour in southeast Asia, and giving more credence to other issues, such as proximity to consumers and supply inputs.

Companies such as Tianyuan argue that there is a positive evolution of job skills and requirements for those working in textiles. At its Arkansas plant, the company employs technicians with coding experience and electrical engineers, alongside sewers and garment specialists. 

Adoption barriers 

Despite the benefits, the industry 4.0 impact on factory processes has not yet been widespread. The necessary new machinery and equipment is expensive, and reconfiguring and redesigning complementary processes demands time and the capability of skilled workers. 

The pay-off associated with digitising processes, for example, is proving to be too far off for most manufacturers, especially in an uncertain economic environment, Mar argues. “If you know your business trajectory for the next several years, of course, one would make investments sooner. But not everyone is in that position.”

There are risks associated with changing business models too. Brands may demand customisation of products today. But things might change tomorrow. While value chains remain complex, and many manufacturing decisions still being made far from the point of consumption, there is a risk of a lack of integration of expectation and what’s possible, when.

 Jobs impact 

But the one thing that is clear is the general impact increased automation will have on people and jobs. According to Rubana Huq, there is a clear dichotomy of profit and labour under the traditional industry supply models. “While automation promises speed and efficiency, it directly negatively impacts labour and employment. One jacquard machine means between six and seven jobs are lost.”

Clearly national economic models built around providing low cost labour are going to have to adapt. Some studies make clear how bleak the situation could get.  

According to McKinsey, automation will result in the loss of around 800 million jobs worldwide by 2030, with the garment sector of Bangladesh being particularly badly hit. A recent study by the Bangladesh government suggests that 60% of jobs in the garment sector – or five million – will go in the next 15 years, with automated knitting machines, robotic auto-coners, and automatic chemical and dye dispensers becoming the norm.

It is predicted that around half a million people that operate single and double needle lockstitch sewing machines in Bangladesh will be out of work by 2041, with many smaller factories being hardest hit financially as they struggle to train their staff and invest in new equipment.

 The reskill balance 

So perhaps the balance comes down to how the necessary reskilling is approached. In a world where responsible sourcing should go beyond simply looking at cost, quality and the environmental impact of production, should brands ask questions about the social implications of automation down their supply chains. 

It is undeniable that further automation will help apparel manufacturers produce more with fewer workers. Eventually not many factories will survive without it and they have no choice but to innovate. “They need to go where the market is going,” Mar says.

The challenge for the textiles sector is to embrace these new technologies and find a responsible approach to automation that ensures workers are not left behind.

This involves giving workers the training to upskill and be relevant as new equipment is introduced. “This is about empowerment: we need to ensure that workers are receiving training which is relevant to the job market inside and outside of the factory, which involves life skills and digital skills,” Mar argues. 

This view shared by Sarah Krasley, founder of the fashion technology company Shimmy. She believes in giving people digital literacy skills so they can work side by side with machines – and that brands, manufacturers, agencies and technology providers must work together on education, skills development and R&D. 

Kraslye says: “It’s not too late to discover a model for shared value in this sector, but we must intervene now. If we do, the apparel sector might just be the industry that gets reskilling right.” 

The challenge, of course, is doing so in a sector that has supply chains spread quite so far and wide. As Rubana Huq concludes, for Bangladesh losing apparel sector market share would be a major problem. Therefore, “at this point there is no other option other than to be innovative” and upskilling workers so the country’s factories can maintain productivity and competitivity. 

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A whole new set