Is Bangladesh’s apparel sector ready for industry 4.0?

A sustainable and environment-friendly growth of our RMG sector, embracing technology is the only way forward. Photo: Collected
Mostafiz Uddin

By guest author Mostafiz Uddin is the managing director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE).

The footprint of Bangladesh in the global apparel industry can be traced back to the early 1980s, and by now the industry has achieved phenomenal growth in exports. Until recently, the global apparel sourcing trajectory has been following a cost-based model and has always found its way to cheaper destinations. But as the evolution of fashion continues, global trade is increasingly affected by factors like fast fashion, social and environmental compliance, and responsible business.

Fortunately enough, the strategies adopted by Bangladesh over the years have mostly been in favour of the industry, which is why we could position ourselves as the second largest apparel exporting country in the world.

How will Bangladeshi apparel makers continue to stay relevant in this digital era? Can we continue to operate on the old model, and be the dinosaurs in the digital world?

he world is progressing faster in information technology and connectivity through smart devices than ever. Only in 1985 did we start to learn how to connect our files in the computer storage through a network system. The world now is virtually connected with almost zero lag in time.

We are now preparing to enter an advanced stage where the Internet of Things (IOT) will connect every object to Big Data, and IOT compatibility will be a requirement—be it an industrial good or a personal belonging. Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have transformed from being mere buzzwords to truly state-of-the-art, leading-edge technology enablers, which are now helping many tech-savvy apparel brands enhance customer experience.

According to the International Data Corporation, as many as 102 million wearable devices were shipped in 2016 to be stitched into our clothing. Smart wearables are seen as a great addition of value to life, and this has marked a new era in fashion evolution.

Digitisation is pervading every aspect of business and leading to higher productivity, reduced costs, reduced man-to-machine ratios, efficient use of resources, and so on. Nowadays, digital technology enables virtual photo-realistic simulation of garments that makes physical samples and proto-typing redundant. Though automation in apparel manufacturing is not expected to go to the same extent as other developed industries, significant progress has already been made in terms of introducing robots and cobots on the apparel production floor. Among other future technologies, 3D printing or additive manufacturing could absolutely revolutionise the fashion business through downloadable clothing. With continuous pressure on fashion brands to speed up marketing products and make turn-around tim.

Changing customer expectations are forcing the traditional fashion business models to rethink and change their business—especially when they feel the threat from tech-savvy heavyweights like Amazon and young start-ups like Shoes of Prey, Unmade, Farfetched, etc—with innovative ways to serve customers and provide newer and elevated levels of customer experiences, giving the customers what they want, A smart way to pursue the SDGs

The world is increasingly leaning toward environmentally sustainable products and services. Bangladesh was an outstanding achiever of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is committed to pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our next generations also care about the environment as they make their purchase decisions based on their deepest value systems. Brands are now paying heed to sustainability and the environmental impact of their products, and the whole apparel eco-system is buzzing with innovations.

Bangladesh has already made a robust start in the area of green industrialisation within the apparel sector. The latest technologies and innovations are bringing major solutions to saving water, energy, and resources, which are of great value to the planet. Biofibres, waterless dyeing, and converting waste to brand new fibres—it’s all happening these days.

Now, it is time to take a more aggressive step to enhance competitiveness and get compatible with industry 4.0. For us, the big questions are: Are we prepared to cope with industry 4.0? Do we have the strategy and required policies to create an enabling environment? Do we have the knowledge, resources, and motivation to go for smart factories? As we pursue the vision of taking our industry to the next level, technology and innovation are the only way to get there.

In order to accelerate technological progress, we must invest more in human capital. We need to keep track of the future state of technologies to be used by the fashion industry, what type of skills would be required to operate them, and of what quantity and quality. We need to equip workers with the right skill-sets, with tech in mind. Technology will be a game-changer for us in terms of sustaining competitiveness, product innovation, and sustainability.

“Manufacturing as usual” will be obsolete in a decade. Are we ready to embrace the change?

This item was firstly published in the Daily Star of Bangladesh.