Apparel Brands Keep Up With Amazon Using Smart Factory Floor Software

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New York-based Computer Generated Solutions (CGS) was founded in 1984 and in recent years has focused on developing and deploying software technologies that digitise apparel shop factory floors – right down to the needle on a sewing machine. The company unveiled a partnership in May with Juki, a Japanese sewing machine manufacturer, to install CGS' software on the devices, effectively making them "smart." Updates can be sent and changes can be sent to fabric batches in real-time while data from the machines are easily accessed for up-to-date analysis.

"You used to have to convince folks that technology is an enabler of the business, not just a necessary evil," says Paul Magel, president of application solutions and technology outsourcing at CGS, reflecting on the apparel industry's embrace of new technologies. "They now look to technology as required; it's a must."

Overall, the appeal of these innovations is to make both man and machine more efficient, even at manual tasks such as sewing. One CGS customer, General Sportswear, reported an 11% increase in efficiency at its facility in Nicaragua, according to a case study provided by CGS. General Sportswear, which makes private-label denim and other apparel for major retailers, says CGS's software enables it to spot sewing and cutting errors and machine malfunctions in real time.

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For example, the company says the factory typically used an "end-of-day" batch processing system to assess 800-plus employees, who are paid by the piece. That manual process required the collecting of tickets, which then needed to be manually scanned at shifts' end. Using CGS's software, General Sportswear says "supervisors gained access to real-time production data. What used to take two to three hours at end of day to do a manual count, is now available in real time."

In addition to increased efficiencies and better management of employees, technological advancements on the shop floor can help brands accomplish another key facet in the e-commerce era: customisation.

Whether it's keeping up with the changes in fashion design, or a sudden shift in consumer demand, apparel makers can only adjust if the manufacturing process on the front end is as agile as sales and marketing at the point of sale. "You can track the work in progress," Magel says. "You don't have to wait for the order to be finished at the end of the line."

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If demand drops or shifts, apparel makers can make adjustments on their end in order to match those customer expectations, he adds.

Magel says this kind of nimble manufacturing is going to become even more important as Amazon expands its own line of private-label attire. Of Amazon's 74 private labels, 66 offer apparel, according to a Coresight study cited by trade publication RetailDive.

By virtue of its platform and all of the information on it-which products sit in our carts unbought, our search history, user reviews-Amazon has a unique window into what we want to buy. The company's recommendation algorithms could just as easily point to an Amazon-made shirt as one by a traditional retailer.

Large retailers like Walmart and Target have also recently beefed up their own private label offerings. "A lot of retailers are doing more design and sourcing and building out their own private brands," he says.

Following Amazon's lead, traditional retailers are morphing to become more like platforms, both selling their own merchandise as well as that made by vendors. Making that transition, however, requires a blending of operational lines.

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"There are no pure-play retailers and wholesalers now," Magel says. "You have to participate in every channel." To that end, he says he believes that technologies like those sold by CGS can help these traditionally separate operations communicate with each other. "Traditional retailers don't speak wholesale," he says.   

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