Home Featured The IoT in Apparel: Supply Chain in Wonderland

The IoT in Apparel: Supply Chain in Wonderland


Wonderland header

In the second instalment in her ‘Internet of Things’ series, Kilara Le, explores what the IoT could mean for your supply chain. A WhichPLM Expert and avid writer, Kilara intertwines her example here with a universal tale to help ground her message.

IoT, as many of you know (or discovered if you read the last article in this series, or other recent postings on WhichPLM), is the “Internet of Things”. In other words –  objects that communicate with each other without needing a human to scan them or press a button. And yes, this story has been around for a while but perhaps told to a slightly different audience.

So let me set the scene here.

Imagine going to the grocery store and instead of having to take everything out of the cart and scan the barcodes, the products are instantly tallied up when you arrive at the register. All you have to do is pay, or maybe your card is automatically charged via a mobile activated payment system. Now this is a point of sale example, so apply it to a clothing retailer and it can work in the same way. However, somehow the RFID tags (or whatever technology is used) have to be applied. This could happen at the store level, or even more efficiently, deeper in the supply chain. What if the idea of the IoT was used throughout the supply chain? And it was driven from POS?

Dare to Dream

Down the rabbit hole

Well, Alice, eat this small cake and follow me through this tiny door. This world we are imagining could, in theory, already exist…

Speed to market from a product development point of view has been a topic long aspired to – but we tend to forget that it’s only one side of the equation, or looking glass, as it were. The other side, speed to market from the supply chain, even with the best intentions, simply takes longer – even if you prep your ingredients, or greige goods, beforehand. Why? Because finished products have to be physically created, not just sketched and prototyped, and multiple entities have to schedule around things like machine setup time, lead times for materials and product testing. Note that time is a key feature here and a constant speed bump. Not that it matters to you, Alice, but in the world of apparel, speed to market and the right product mix can make or break your margins.

So, how can we use IoT to get time on our side, for real?

What’s trending?

First of all, we need to know as soon as possible what people are looking at in the stores, and measure that against what trends are coming down the collective consciousness pipeline. With an RFID enabled store we can see what gets picked up, and what is tried on versus what is bought. This might surprise you, Alice, but not everyone has access to cakes that can make them larger and smaller on a whim, so we need to find clothes that fit us at a point in time and make us look and feel good in the looking glass. Most people stay one size for a while, although cake can play a role in this issue of finding the right size. Anyway, understanding what is selling and what is of interest through the IoT-enabled POS can be sent directly back to design, merchandising and other product development team members and, in a perfect Wonderland, be matched to the product information in PLM and gathered into a weekly report that’s sent to the team.

Time is of the essence, here

Second, is speeding up the supply chain using the IoT.

So, now off to supply chain Wonderland, where there is a fork in the road. One route goes off to Replenishment and the other to New Products. Let’s take the Replenishment route first to understand what the IoT Supply Chain Wonderland has to offer us. Don’t worry, you’ll recognize some characters.

Once POS and the Warehouse realize that they are running low on something that is selling well and is a candidate for replenishment, such as white gloves, they notify the glove factory that they need more and issue a PO. The PO is received by the factory’s ERP system and matched with the PLM record, which holds the fabric information. The fabric data is sent to the factory robot, which rolls or walks (depending on the model) off to find the fabric in their warehouse. It goes directly to the section that fabric is in, directed by the RFID enabled inventory system, which tells it where the two shade matched rolls of fabric are, and knows the yardage of each of them. The automatic inspection machine that looked them over when they were first received has verified the exact yardage of these rolls. Any defects are noted and shared with the spreader and cutter, which will take them into account.

The robot greets them (he has been programmed to be polite, you know), he picks them up and takes them over to the CNC cutter and loads one onto the spreader, which starts spreading immediately, having been told by the cutter what the marker length is. By the way, the cutter was notified by PLM as to the order and the graded pattern was sent. The order and pattern were analyzed by the cut order planning system and marker making software, which automatically sent the marker file to the cutter, which in turn communicated this to the spreader.

Once the first roll is spread, the fabric trundles down the table to the cutter, which gets right to work. The robot loads up the next roll and heads down the table to catch the cut pieces as they fall off the conveyor. It stacks the cut parts by size, based on the marker file it’s been sent, and brings them over to the sewing machines. Another robot brings over the thread and any other bits that are needed that it has picked from the RFID enabled inventory. It loads them onto the sewing machines, makes an adjustment on the stitch length, ties off the threads, says “off with your threads” and the sewing starts. When a machine sends a distress signal, a robot returns with a small bottle of oil, says, “ here, drink this” and pours it into the reservoir and the down time is minimal.

The machines sense the size of the pieces they are sewing and as the one operation is finished, the gloves are passed onto the next machine. They are then tagged (with RFID enabled tags, of course), bagged, boxed and shipping labeled. The boxes gather waiting to be picked up and begin their next adventure. Meanwhile, on the other side of the looking glass, new products are being designed…

“Hmmm,” says the queen merchandiser, “it looks like hearts and diamonds are trending on social media, and our poofy skirts are selling in spades”.  “Pull up our fit avatar and lets knock out some 3D prototypes. Do we have the new fabric characteristics entered into our 3D CAD software yet and has compliance certified the new mills?”

By the end of the week, the PD team has a line put together and the 3D models have been sent to PLM where they’ve been broken out to pattern, construction details, BOMs, and linked with material files. The delivery date is entered and the calculations start. The workflow sends alerts to the supply chain partners and waits for verifications. The fabric mill’s system verifies that they can hit the delivery date to the factory; the factory verifies it can get the rest of the materials and has capacity.

The supply chain Wonderland kicks into action and in a matter of weeks product is in store and providing more data back into the systems.


Back on familiar ground

Fantasy aside, embracing the IoT has the potential to meld development, in-store sales and supply chain into one lean, mean, apparel machine. Visualize it like the infinity 8, where one element feeds into the next and just keeps going. Some of this is possible with single systems, but can be even more complete with the connectivity enabled through the IoT and a healthy mix of some other technologies.

Time for Alice to eat more cake, have a cup of tea and get back to reality. Or is it? The next day, Alice’s friend pops into her local store and finds exactly what she is looking for, as if by magic…

Kilara Le A senior contributor to WhichPLM, Kilara Le has a background in design and textiles, and a passion for streamlining product development. She has worked with major international retailers, brands, and technology providers on improving business processes, technology implementation and software development. A seeker of elegant solutions to meet business goals and challenges, she is currently a freelance consultant with Walter Wilhelm Associates, and has previously worked with Gerber Technology, PTC, Dassault, and Lectra software.