Is mass customization in apparel possible?
Someone I’ll call Thomas writes:
I’ve been seeing more and more mass customization type apparel companies and they have been mostly men’s formal (shirts, suits, etc.). What are your thoughts on that? I have your book and have been reading your blog and I believe you have written about just-in-time manufacturing/custom manufacturing in years past. Now that technology is improving and costs of overseas manufacturing seem to be rising with some “hard line” products coming back to the US. What are your takes on “mass customization”? Could it be done with apparel?
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Sorry, maybe that isn’t funny but it was the first thought that came to mind. Yes it is possible within given parameters and I’ll answer it in the context of a start up business option.
Other than the obvious, there are two central issues with respect to Mass Customization -or MTM for Made to Measure (manufacturing)- that must be determined. The first is timeliness and the second is product diversity.
With respect to timeliness, how quickly do you plan to ship to your customer? In a day, a week, a month, two months, more? There are no set criterion but much of the discussion of MTM seems to imply that delivery should be relatively fast. If long lead times (a month or more) aren’t an issue, it is typical for MTM enterprises to have their production outsourced off shore. If you want to deliver more quickly, it will probably have to be domestic and you’ll have to be the one doing it. If you’re asking whether it is possible for you to do it cost effectively domestically, the answer is yes but again, there are a few hurdles that I’ll get into further down.
With respect to product diversity, the products your MTM enterprise will produce have to be relatively static, namely mostly shirts or slacks or suits etc. as you mentioned. It is entirely possible to have other types of products but the base style will be tightly focused. Meaning for example, a range of pant styles with different waistband options but going from a suit to a ball gown is untenable.
Other than the front end which requires some sophistication in compiling orders and specifications, the reason the product you sell must be tightly defined is for three central reasons:
- Rapid and ongoing pattern changes for each order means you’ll need CAD software and someone to drive it (again, CAD software won’t make patterns for you anymore than Word will write a book for you). You’ll also need a plotter or a CAM cutting solution.
- If you offer customers the option of selecting from a range of fabrics, you’ll have the overhead of carrying fabric inventory.
- Lastly, the best and fastest method of single unit production requires a well designed sewing cell or sewing pod with given machines for each operation arranged next to each other so operators can walk from machine to machine in the flow of making a garment.
If you have all the above -to include the electronic infrastructure for order taking- it is possible to cut, sew and ship a product in very short order such as a day or three (depending on a back log if any). The costs of such a set up to include human infrastructure are considerable. For this reason you probably don’t want to invest in something like this until you have sales to drive it. Which means you have a chicken or egg problem.
I think you can only create something like this in stages. First create a product and cut and sew to order by yourself. A lot of people do that -the issue is being able to scale and know when it’s time to finesse your operation which is again, done in stages.
Some people think the solution is to hire a contractor and I’m not saying you can’t only that I don’t know of any contractors willing to do single orders on an ongoing basis. You may find individuals who are willing to do it but again, you’re probably going to have to get the item cut for them. It then becomes a bit trying in managing customers, having the means to adjust patterns, cut the fabric and then deliver the work to whomever will sew it. Ideally it’s you and somebody else working together in the same space because a lot less time will be wasted ferrying stuff to and fro.
As challenging as a set up like this is, I think it is a great goal to aspire to. As long as you have sales to drive it, it can be done although of course, you’ll have to have the resources to acquire the equipment and a space from whence stuff can get done. It can require significant capitalization but then that depends on your definition. I had a client who installed a cell like this and I was surprised at how little it cost. I expected it to be twice as much. Their package included machines, consulting and training for a cost of $35K. That’s not to say that is a complete and total cost because they had interim consulting (with me) before they could get to the stage of implementing a cell like that and they also had software and typical work room amenities such as cutting tables, cutting equipment, furnishings and the like.
Anyone considering an operational model like this should come with us to the TexProcess show this coming April where there will be a lean cell in action and to talk to the people from America’s 21st who set it up. It is neat to watch, the demonstration draws quite a crowd. I still remember the first time I saw them in action probably circa 1996. The stitchers were making zip front canvas working jackets with pockets. I’ll tell you how long it took them to make each one -on average, 11 minutes- even though you’ll swear I am lying. Again, go to this show; it will pay for itself. The show is only held every other year so if you don’t go now, you’ll have to wait until 2014 to begin your nefarious quest of world domination via single unit production.
Questions? Comments? I’m sure I left tons out. Be a dear and let me know what that was.