How the Mircofactory is Transforming the Textile Industry

The trade show floor roars with the sound of machinery. Steam puffs towards the ceiling as automated cutters, sewers, and other manufacturing equipment dance in circuits in a grand display of industry. It’s Electric Runway’s first time at Texprocess Americas 2018, and there’s a lot to take in.

Texprocess is the largest North American trade show displaying equipment for the development, sourcing, and production of sewn products. Despite the Georgia heat outside, the show floor is cold. The air conditioning is blasting, and the sight of slick metals provides a cooling sensation.

For this year’s show, Gerber Technology and Kornit Digital set-up an on-demand microfactory taking attendees through the entire manufacturing process, from conception to production. They commissioned Electric Runway to provide exclusive coverage.

So what exactly is a microfactory? By definition, a microfactory refers to a small dimension factory able to produce small dimension products. Yet, when it comes to the impact on the textile industry, as well as the possibilities it provides, there’s nothing small about the microfactory.

Here’s where the industry is at right now: Fashion has never been faster. As such, manufacturers are constantly seeking ways to be quick, efficient, and adaptable to meet the needs of consumers. Those in the fashion industry may have heard of “See Now, Buy Now,” the trend in which designers sell their clothes from fashion week directly from the catwalk to the consumer, as opposed to the traditional method of courting retailers and buyers to secure orders months in advance of actually producing garments. Because, after all, who wants to wait months to own and wear something they literally just saw before their eyes?

“We live in a Prime economy,” explains Ryan Kurek, Director of Marketing for North America for Kornit Digital. Of course, he’s referencing the Amazon Effect, and how the ecommerce giant has evolved consumer demands; We no longer want to wait five or six business days to receive online purchases when Amazon offers two-day (if not same-day or even within-the-hour delivery).

In short, the ways we buy and sell are evolving rapidly, and the methods we’ve used to manufacture and deliver fashion for the past century are quickly becoming outdated. But what will replace overseas outsourcing, six-month lead times, and a few-sizes-and-styles for all? The microfactory is being championed as a solution to help combat many of the fashion industry’s biggest challenges today. Why? A few reasons, I learned:

First, microfactories promise to bring jobs back to local economies, a phenomenon known as reshoring. Reshoring is essentially the reversal of offshoring, which has been the trend for the past several decades as companies outsourced the manufacturing of sewn products to other countries where the labour is often cheaper and fewer regulations exist. But, as we’ve seen with tragic incidents such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, outsourcing can lead to exploitation. With automation on the rise, microfactories closer to home are now capable of producing volumes of goods with a handful of skilled employees running the machinery. Designers are more closely connected to the place and the people that manufacture their goods, and as a result, the end product is better quality and the exploitation of garment workers is less likely.

The second challenge the microfactory can solve for the fashion industry is speed. Because everything is done in one place, microfactories provide the opportunity to go from design to delivery faster than ever. No longer does a designer have to create months in advance and send digital files to be actualized in factories overseas, with samples and materials traveling back and forth, all the while delaying production and consuming resources. Instead, she can produce her product close to home and see a finished garment within days, not months. Perhaps she doesn’t even produce goods until they’re ordered and paid for, a solution known as on-demand manufacturing. And, perhaps those products can be easily customized for each of her customers. The result is a more streamlined and personalized process that sidesteps overproduction. This leads nicely to our next finding…

Microfactories can actually enable brands to produce products in more sustainable ways. Sustainability has become a huge talking point for the fashion industry as of late, but few brands are enacting real change. Software such as Gerber’s AccuMark pattern design software can automatically address inefficiencies in the marker-making process, which means less material is left on the cutting board. Innovative equipment is providing new solutions to old problems. Take for example Kornit’s Allegro printer, which is an entirely waterless solution for direct-to-textile printing. It’s no secret that the traditional dying process pollutes waterways and consumes tonnes of water. I was surprised to learn the Allegro’s inks are non-polluting and non-toxic, and the fabric that comes out at the end is already dry and ready to use, with no extra treatments necessary.

Watch the above video to learn more about the role of software in the microfactory, as well as the central role that automation plays in this new paradigm. Thanks, Gerber and Kornit for hosting us in Hot-Lanta! We can’t wait for our next adventure together!

Amanda Cosco
Amanda is a freelance journalist and consultant focused on the intersection of fashion and technology and the founder of Electric Runway.

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