Custom clothing machine might herald a revolution
A store’s 3-D knitter can produce a seamless blazer in about 90 minutes.
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.”
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.