Cus­tom cloth­ing ma­chine might her­ald a rev­o­lu­tion

A store’s 3-D knit­ter can pro­duce a seam­less blazer in about 90 min­utes.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Sarah Halzack Halzack writes for the Wash­ing­ton Post.

With its tidy racks of dress shirts, trousers and sweaters, the Min­istry of Sup­ply shop in Bos­ton looks, in many ways, sim­i­lar to other cloth­ing stores.

That is, ex­cept for the 10foot-long 3-D knit­ting ma­chine next to the check­out counter — the one that weighs as much as a car, is out­fit­ted with 4,000 nee­dles and can make a cus­tom­ized blazer in about 90 min­utes.

The process re­quires lit­tle in the way of hu­man la­bor. Af­ter a cus­tomer se­lects col­ors, cuffs and but­tons, an em­ployee pro­grams the de­vice to crank out a jacket to those spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

It may sound like a nov­elty, but make no mis­take: It is a sym­bol of a po­ten­tially in­dus­try-shak­ing wave of in­no­va­tion tak­ing hold in the ap­parel world. This is an ex­per­i­ment in the idea of mass cus­tomiza­tion, in which clothes are made for an in­di­vid­ual’s pref­er­ences or sizes.

Min­istry of Sup­ply’s en­try into this ter­ri­tory is in its early days, and 3-D knit­ting is just one tool that could even­tu­ally be used to bring per­son­al­ized gar­ments to the masses. But if this and other nascent ef­forts are suc­cess­ful, it could set off a scram­ble in the fash­ion busi­ness to trans­form the sup­ply chains and de­sign meth­ods used to make clothes.

If even a small por­tion of a re­tailer’s goods are made on de­mand, it could slash some costs, since there would be no risk of get­ting stuck with in­ven­tory cus­tomers don’t like. It could also en­able brands to re­act on the fly to trends, a pow­er­ful weapon at a time when so­cial me­dia is act­ing as rocket fuel for fads. And it could help re­tail­ers meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of cus­tomers who are seek­ing out one-ofa-kind, bou­tique-like goods.

“It’s go­ing to be a big change,” said Lisa Chap­man, a pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Univer­sity’s Col­lege of Tex­tiles who stud­ies mass cus­tomiza­tion.

The em­brace of per­son­al­ized goods in ap­parel is tak­ing a va­ri­ety of forms. Adi­das soon will open its sec­ond Speed­fac­tory, a fa­cil­ity that even­tu­ally aims to make sneak­ers cus­tom­ized to the ex­act shape and size of shop­pers’ feet. Men’s ap­parel start-up In­dochino has en­tered into a strate­gic part­ner­ship with a Chi­nese man­u­fac­turer that en­ables it to ex­pand pro­duc­tion of its made-to-mea­sure suits.

Min­istry of Sup­ply — a start-up that be­gan as an ecom­merce op­er­a­tion and now has nine stores, in­clud­ing a lo­ca­tion in Santa Mon­ica — cur­rently has a 3-D knit­ting ma­chine only in Bos­ton, but says it might make up to one-third of its mer­chan­dise via 3-D knit­ting within a cou­ple of years.

The ma­chine, made by a Japanese com­pany called Shima Seiki, knits yarn into the shape of a com­plete gar­ment. There is no cut­ting and sewing and, there­fore, no seams. Called the Whole­gar­ment Mach2XS, the ma­chine costs about $190,000. Shima Seiki cov­ered that cost for this ex­per­i­ment; Min­istry of Sup­ply paid for its in­stal­la­tion and han­dles main­te­nance.

The re­tailer charges $345 for a blazer made on the 3-D knit­ting ma­chine if you cus­tom­ize the gar­ment, or $285 if you buy it off the rack.

Gi­han Amarasiri­war­dena, Min­istry of Sup­ply’s chief de­sign of­fi­cer, said the process has key ad­van­tages. The lack of seams makes cloth­ing more durable, be­cause seams are typ­i­cally where wear and tear first ap­pear. Also, by knit­ting in the shape of the blazer, there is very lit­tle fab­ric waste.

“It seems like it’s a man­u­fac­tur­ing in­no­va­tion, but it re­ally af­fects the en­tire busi­ness,” said Aman Ad­vani, the re­tailer’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

The com­pany has had to adopt a new de­sign process for gar­ments made via 3-D knit­ting. In­stead of sketch­ing new pieces on pa­per, work­ers build them us­ing soft­ware on a dig­i­tal man­nequin. And since it is now a maker, not just a seller, the shop must keep enough yarn in the back of the store to crank out dozens of blaz­ers.

Store em­ploy­ees must also mas­ter new skills, such as en­vi­sion­ing a gar­ment at the yarn level and us­ing and main­tain­ing the ma­chine.

Still, the tech has lim­its. Al­though the ma­chine can pro­duce a blazer in about an hour and a half, more steps are in­volved be­fore the shop­per takes it home. The gar­ment is washed and dried so the ma­te­rial shrinks to the right fit. But­tons and a la­bel are sewn on by hand.

The re­tailer hopes to one day turn around a gar­ment dur­ing a sin­gle store visit. For now, clerks tell cus­tomers that their gar­ment will be ready in three to five days.

It is hitches such as these that make Felipe Caro, a pro­fes­sor at UCLA who stud­ies op­er­a­tions and tech­nol­ogy man­age­ment, skep­ti­cal that mass cus­tomiza­tion can be­come ubiq­ui­tous in re­tail. “Sure, there’s al­most no la­bor in­volved. But how many of those can you pro­duce in an af­ter­noon?” said Caro, who pre­vi­ously worked on sup­ply chain strat­egy for fast-fash­ion pow­er­house Zara.

Even with the re­duced costs associated with less la­bor and no ob­so­les­cence, Caro finds it hard to see how this can be a cost-ef­fec­tive model at a large scale.

And yet, Chap­man of North Carolina State said there is plenty of in­cen­tive for com­pa­nies to keep try­ing to crack this puz­zle. “There’s go­ing to be a de­mand for more per­son­al­ized and cus­tom­ized prod­ucts,” she said. “That’s where these new tech­nolo­gies have the po­ten­tial to make an im­pact.”

Min­istry of Sup­ply sees more av­enues for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. It is look­ing at cus­tomiz­ing the siz­ing of prod­ucts made via on-de­mand man­u­fac­tur­ing. It also hopes to of­fer more style and aes­thetic choices.

“We jok­ingly but not so jok­ingly like to men­tion that we only bud­geted for oneway trans­porta­tion of that ma­chine,” Ad­vani said. “So we’re bet­ting on it be­ing the fu­ture.”

Jorge Ribas The Wash­ing­ton Post

GI­HAN AMARASIRI­WAR­DENA, left, Min­istry of Sup­ply’s de­sign chief, talks with CEO Aman Ad­vani at their f lag­ship store in Bos­ton. The store’s 3-D knit­ting ma­chine is an ex­per­i­ment on mass cus­tomiza­tion.

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