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AI – The First Wave in the Apparel Industry

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is buzzword today. AI is expected to dramatically transform almost all industries. When one thinks of AI in the apparel industry, we have visions of automated machine only factories. With robots doing all the work and large scale elimination of jobs. I feel that this could not be further from the truth (garment sewing jobs are not going anywhere anytime soon). So what will change in the short term (next 2-4 years)?

  1. Desk Jobs will change dramatically – One of the first things that will change is the way we are doing merchandising and supply chain management. Clerical jobs such as updating BOM, tracking production, updating status, creating shipping documents. All white collar jobs will see a huge influx of “smart technology tools”. AI driven bots will be able to respond to basic customer emails, read order sheets, generate BOMs and order raw material – all with little or no human intervention.
  2. Quality control functions will change – With improvements in image recognition technology, visual quality control will see a big change. Most of this will get shifted to machines. First wave would probably happen in the warehouses of large retailers and then percolate down to the manufacturing units as well.
  3. Sensor Based technology – over the next few years garment factories (like other industries) will see an explosion of sensors. All sewing machines, all areas of the factory will come with in-built sensors that provide real time information on their status (including production, maintenance etc.) This real time information will then get “analysed” by “Supervisor” programs that will then alert managers on where the bottlenecks are, where the quality is not ok, what impact it will have on delivery and subsequent processed and what corrective action is to be taken.
  4. Smart and Automatic Planning and Scheduling tools – Greater CPU power and AI will enable companies to completely automate planning and re-planning of their production. Such planning improvements will see an improvement in utilisation and reduction in production costs.
  5. Connected Systems – Today the supply chain is connected through some rudimentary systems. This will dramatically change with systems talking to each other in real time providing feedback to each other on a real time basis. As brands work on driving greater efficiency in their supply chain, they will see the significant benefits of having integrated systems that talk to each other and take timely action – all without any human intervention.

The adoption of these technologies should see a reduction in operational costs by 15-25%. It would also lead to a 40-50% reduction in lead times. The above technology already exists. And has started getting implemented in some of the other industries. These low hanging fruits are something that every CXO in the apparel industry should focus on and plan for this transition quickly.

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