Fashion on demand: challenges and advantages
The fashion industry was responsible for at least 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, more than the carbon output of the economies of France, Germany and the UK combined.
Improving similar data and aligning the fashion industry with global climate goals depends on abating emissions across the industry value chain.
The implementation of sustainability practices for upstream activities (production and processing of fabrics, clothing production, etc.) would potentially allow a reduction of 60% of the total emissions of the sector.
These sustainability practices include actions that can reduce overproduction and the amount of inventories.
In this regard, fashion on demand can represent a valid solution to limit overproduction and the accumulation of excessive quantities of inventories.
Fashion on demand or fashion made to order consists in the production of a garment only after the customer has placed an order for it. We have analyzed the case of a fashion company that has adopted the logic of made-to-order production for some of its products in a previous article.
This is a production logic consistent with Just in Time production, typical of the pull system, which provides for the creation of a product only when necessary and in the volumes actually required by market demand.
Technological innovation has made it possible to encourage the diffusion of production on demand also in the fashion sector.
However, the development of such production systems among companies needs a thorough assessment of the benefits and challenges they can offer to the fashion industry.
Towards on-demand production: pull vs push production
The goal of "lean production" is to improve production activities, reducing waste and costs.
One of the key steps to achieve this goal is to move towards just-in-time principles, which are the basis of the pull manufacturing system.
According to the "pull" dynamic, procurement, production and distribution are based on customer demand (make to order).
In the fashion industry we are witnessing a similar change. Products are "pulled" to market based on actual demand rather than "pushed" based on best guesses and forecasts of demand.
Unlike the pull system, the push model is the basis of mass production since it is based on the expected product demand (make-to-stock).
This means that in make-to-stock production planning, production is started before and independently of specific customer orders.
The change between the 2 models is significant.
According to the push dynamic, procurement, production and distribution were based on forecasts of future consumer demand.
According to the "pull" dynamic, procurement, production and distribution are based on actual customer demand.
Mass customization for a fashion on demand and more sustainable
Consumer demand for custom, versatile clothing is driving the transition from mass production to mass customization.
Mass customization in the fashion industry consists in the creation of products suitable for the individual taste of the consumer, at the right time and at the right cost.
To encourage the development of fashion on demand and mass customization it is necessary to use some of the digital technologies of Industry 4.0.
For example, virtual prototyping of clothing is a technology that can encourage the development of mass customization, since it allows accurate and rapid design of clothing.
The use of this technology would allow production to be adapted more quickly to the different demands of consumers.
Recently, Lectra, a leader in the fashion, automotive and furniture sectors, offering industrial intelligence solutions, software, equipment, data and services that simplify the digital transformation of companies, has developed its project "Fashion on Demand" with the aim of making the entire customization process automatic, from the receipt of orders, to the production in its different phases, up to the cutting operations.
The project includes the Lectra Digital Cutting Platform, a cloud-based data hub that connects IT systems and the cutting room, ensuring the effectiveness of planning and cutting processes.
The platform stores data (on products, materials and orders), connectors (to ERP, MIS and CRM systems) and business applications.
Mass customization applied to the fashion sector guarantees a series of economic and environmental benefits, such as:
Extension of the use phase of the garments: In the process of mass production, the customer is not directly related to the manufacturer and the products are made based on general market research. However, in the customization process, the customer becomes the co-designer, who actively participates in the product development process. This offers the customer a sense of belonging and attachment to the product and the process, even before purchasing the garment itself. Consequently, mass customization allows the customer to be emotionally tied to the product for a longer period of time than a mass-produced garment, encouraging the extension of the product's use phase;
- Waste minimization: Mass customization could drastically reduce the purchase of clothing that the customer is not completely satisfied with. As analyzed in the previous point, custom styles with the right fit and quality would extend the use phase of the product. Reducing the purchase of unwanted clothing means favoring the decrease in waste generation. Furthermore, in the push system, production is based on forecasted market demand and therefore forecasted sales data are not perfectly accurate. This causes overproduction and the generation of unsold inventory. In mass customization, production is based on effective demand, which minimizes waste of resources and overproduction, and, consequently, the pressure on natural ecosystems. In this way, storage costs are also reduced to a minimum;
- Implementation of circular business models: The process of mass customization creates a closer relationship between producer and consumer. This could incentivize the implementation of circular business models and, in particular, product collection services to carry out repair, regeneration and maintenance operations, which would allow the useful life of the garment to be extended;
- Transition from global to local manufacturing: Mass customization is characterized by customer-centric manufacturing, competitive production costs, and timely delivery of finished products. In this scenario, to facilitate the flexibility and speed of production processes, it is necessary to move from delocalized production to more local production, reducing costs and emissions associated with transport (a transition, however, certainly not without operational and economic challenges for companies).
Challenges and perspectives of on-demand production in fashion
As highlighted in the previous paragraph, there are several advantages deriving from the application of the pull production system to the fashion industry.
However, it is also necessary to consider the disadvantages of fashion on demand, which could hinder its development.
One of the main difficulties of fashion on demand corresponds to the company's difficulty in adapting to rapid fluctuations in demand, due to the absence of adequate inventories. This would likely cause delays in delivering the garment to the customer.
The pull production system also provides for a strong dependence on the activities of the suppliers and on the regularity of the transport times. Delays in the delivery of materials could further increase the delivery times of the finished product to the consumer.
Despite these critical issues, there are several solutions capable of making on-demand production a valid alternative to make-to-stock production.
Adjusting to demand fluctuations and the heavy dependence on suppliers and the regularity of material transports can be addressed by switching to nearshore production which would allow to reduce the transport distance and, consequently, the delivery times of the products to the customers. However, this leads to further challenges such as those related to production costs.
Another tool to facilitate adaptation to fluctuations in demand and at the same time reduce the risk of delays in product delivery is that of virtual prototyping and technologies that allow for the automation and digitization of the design and production process of the garment.
Fashion on demand can represent a solution capable of tackling some environmental criticalities of the fashion sector such as overproduction and the generation of large quantities of inventories.
At the basis of fashion on demand is the concept of a pull production system (make to stock) which provides for the creation of a product only when necessary and in the volumes actually required by market demand.
To make a pull production system possible, it is necessary to move from mass production to mass customization. This transition offers various advantages: from customer loyalty to the extension of the use phase of the products up to the reduction of waste generated by the fashion sector.
Despite these advantages, fashion on demand presents non-negligible problems such as the difficulty of adapting to fluctuations in demand and the strong dependence on suppliers.
However, technological innovation, combined with an efficient product development phase and production less distant from the company, could allow the current challenges of fashion on demand to be overcome and favor the development of pull-type production in the fashion sector.
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