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CHITTAGONG – Talk of automation, artificial intelligence and digitisation in apparel supply chains is misplaced and misleading claims one of Bangladesh’s foremost denim manufacturers. In a candid and thought-provoking op-ed for the forthcoming issue of Apparel Insider, Denim Expert owner Mostafiz Uddin argues that, in an industry of low margins and where labour is relatively cheap, the economics of major technological upgrading simply don’t stack up. Instead, he argues, more support should be given to factories in driving marginal efficiency gains from existing infrastructure and implementing practical sustainability measures focused on water and energy saving.

Uddin says: “All the talk right now in apparel supply chains is of new technology, automation and robots potentially replacing humans. We read constantly about how customisation is the future, that consumers want to go online and bespoke their clothing to their own specific requirements. ‘Personalisation’ is the name of the game, for it’s far better to have personalised products than mass customisation, surely? Perhaps so, provided you’re prepared to pay for it. But who is? How many people do we see wearing personalised apparel products?

“We hear talk also of 3D sampling. Some claim textile manufacturers which can’t provide 3D samples face an uncertain future. Really? I’d be more inclined to believe such rhetoric if I hadn’t been hearing people saying the same thing for several years. Surely it can be no coincidence that the people making such claims also happen to be those who have the most to gain from such technology gaining traction – the technology manufacturers themselves, or the consultants trying to sell this technology.”

Uddin highlights the concept of the micro-factory as being great in theory. Yet he is dubious about whether the economics of such a concept could made to stack up on a grand scale.

He asks where the micro-factory model fits in with, “the cashflow of a factory in Bangladesh producing millions of units per month? Are such factories going to disappear overnight? Who will take up the slack of this lost production?

“We need to understand that global apparel supply chains have fundamentally changed very little over past few years. This is a conservative industry and, let’s not forget, an industry of tight margins.”

Uddin continues: “We have to remember though that apparel manufacture is not a high-tech industry. This is not car manufacture or silicone chip production, where the economics of automation stack up. This is the production of low value items which are sold on for tiny margins.

“Also factor in that automation technology of varying guises has been around for years in the garment industry. Why is it taking so long for manufacturers to use it? Perhaps it is because labour is so cheap in this industry, certainly in South East Asia. Labour costs are not the burden for manufacturers in garment supply chains that they are in other industries.”

The full op-ed will appear in the forthcoming edition of Apparel Insider. For subscription options click HERE

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