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How Automation Is Reshaping Fashion

Automation is set to transform the business of fashion, from design to production to marketing.
Computerised knitting machines in a textile factory | Source: Shutterstock
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — In his farewell address, former US president Barack Obama acknowledged that outsourcing had stripped the country of both blue and white-collar jobs. But a new and even more transformative threat was already looming. "The next wave of economic dislocation won't come from overseas," he added. "It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete."

Automation — or the creation of technology systems that eliminate the need for humans to perform certain tasks — is set to transform the global economy. According to a January 2017 report released by the McKinsey Global Institute, tasks that are likely to be automated by 2055 — from predictable physical activities to data collecting and processing — currently make up 51 percent of work tasks in the United States, accounting for almost $2.7 trillion in wages. The industries most likely to be affected include manufacturing and retail. It’s no surprise, then, that fashion is destined to be irrevocably reshaped by automation.

In many ways, it's happening already. Today, robots are essential to the operation of most distribution centres, making the pick-and-ship process more seamless and efficient than ever before with far fewer human employees. But it's not just manual labour that's being displaced. Jobs like trend forecasting, which used to require travelling the world to gather on-the-ground information on new products, behaviours and ideas, are being reshaped by invariably intelligent software. “In some cases, humans will just be a supplement, a double check,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, chief retail strategist at Shoptalk.

Creative jobs are thought to be safer. But computer-aided design has already changed the way human designers create garments and, in the near future, artificial intelligence will likely do some — if not all — of the designing for them. “Some commercial music composed by machines is indistinguishable in quality from those of commercial composers,” says Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of the January 2017 report. “To what extent is it okay to augment or aid the process of design? The mechanical parts of designing — the process of getting from a custom-fit garment to something that can be produced at a larger scale — some of that is engineering."

There is a particularly high value where time-to-market is important. You'll potentially see manufacturing footprints change.

Once garments are conceived, their production can also be automated. While handmade, one-off pieces may always be perceived as higher value, the coming of so-called "sewbots" — or automated sewing machines — could drastically reduce the need for human garment workers, with profound implications for fashion's global supply chain and societies in production centres like Bangladesh.

Sewbots may eliminate millions of jobs and deliver better quality more efficiently than humans. "Benefits to automation include more reliability, less variants,” Chui says. “There is a particularly high value where time-to-market is important. You’ll potentially see manufacturing footprints change.”

They could also change the way businesses are structured in other ways. Specifically, more businesses may adopt a vertical model, taking control of their production by investing in their own automation equipment. Automated digital manufacturing could also drive greater on-demand production, leading to increased customisation and decreased inventory risk. "Build now'" is the missing piece of the "see now, buy now” model, which, much like the traditional approach, still requires brands to make upfront bets on what will actually sell. In contrast, automation will allow brands to produce in response to demand, faster than ever, eliminating guesswork and waste.

Automation could also transform the retail experience, replacing human sales assistants with intelligent shopping bots which cater to personal tastes and can scour the web for the best price. Physical stores might be remade as distribution centres, geared to "click and collect" with site-to-store package lockers instead of racks of clothes.

And while the making and selling of clothes is set to change radically, so is the marketing. Eventually, even image direction and copywriting — often elevated to an art form by clever advertising agencies and their brand partners — will be done by software.

The first draft of product copy might still be edited by a human, but it will be written by a machine.

Consider Persado, a piece of software that already generates short-form copy for email marketing campaigns and e-commerce product descriptions — promising higher conversion and increased return on investment. “There will be automation in a lot of content management,” Mulpuru says. “The first draft of product copy might still be edited by a human, but it will be written by a machine."

But it's unlikely that human touch will disappear from fashion altogether. There will always be an emotional, human layer to creating and purchasing non-essential items. “It’s been very hard to predict where the new activities, jobs and occupations will come from,” Chui says. “What’s less susceptible are creative tasks, and tasks that involve managing and developing others and interacting with other people.”

“But we think it’s very important [for companies] to at least start understanding — and in some cases, investing — in automation tools,” Chui cautions. “It’s slow in macro — we’re talking decades for all of these automation tools to take hold — but fast in micro. If you’re an individual company and a competitor uses automation to change the game, that’s going to affect you very quickly."

“This is not astronomy, this is more like chess,” Chui continues. “A company that wants to get ahead of the competition — with higher quality, higher throughput, and more variation at lower costs — might say yes to automation."

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