Demand-Based Manufacturing Prepares for Commercial Roll-Out
A California-based company that is pairing the disruptive technologies of purchase activated and demand manufacturing with a waterless dyeing and printing process expects to soon sign the first contracts for commercialization.
For Bill Grier, president and founder of Apparel Made for You (AM4U), this will be a major milestone in a journey that started about two decades ago.
“Our pilot factory is completely built and from a performance standpoint, we are ready to do everything,” Grier said. “We are getting our funding package and our installation package together for the customers that seem to be ready to go. After 18 to 20 years of working on this discovery and technology, I know it is only an enabling technology. It doesn’t make a profit by itself. What we had to do is get all these companies to build a demonstration factory that put all these technologies together.”
The pilot factory is a result of the investment and collaboration of equipment and software manufacturers that make up the Virtual Inventory Manufacturing Alliance (ViMA). In addition to AM4U, it includes Gerber Technology, Eton Systems (a manufacturer of robotic technology), dyeing and printing machinery manufacturer Monti Antonio, software maker Optitex, knitting systems manufacturer Vangard PaiLung, software company ErgoSoft and Allied Modular, a developer of modular building systems. An alliance partner is the California Poly-Technic State University-Pomona department of apparel merchandising and management which has provided research and market education.
According to Grier, apparel companies have wasted billions on tariffs. Purchase-activated manufacturing (PAM) offers the chance to eliminate this cost while also eliminating the need to maintain large inventories.
“We can leverage our consumers and make it where we wear it," he said. "Every domestic manufacturer can do this all over the world. Making products after they are purchased or after it’s been depleted in the store is the new way. This technology has never been integrated before.”
Grier describes the Active Tunnel Coloration (ATC) as a technology that offers the ability to change color and prints on the fly. He said the machine can “harness the energy” stored in the fabric itself to do the dye and print process. The energy stored during the process of making the synthetic fiber (primarily polyester and nylon) itself is releasable by the process in the ATC machine.
Grier likens the process to that of selecting a paint color at Home Depot or Lowe's, where colors are selected and blended with basic white paint rather than the stores stocking huge inventories of pre-mixed paint colors.
“Apparel is the place to go with this," he said. "The whole industry will flip over this. Just like we have many craft breweries in this country, we will have many factories. These jobs will be here in the U.S.”
If the AM4U technologies become successful on a large, commercialized scale, as Grier believes, it could reduce over-production of apparel and reduce the need for outsourcing.
“It will redefine the way we manufacture,” Grier said. “It will change supply and demand to demand and supply and eliminate the need for inventory.”
The effort picked up momentum following the Texprocess Americas exhibition in Atlanta in May where it was featured in a new technology pavilion organized by TC2. The technology is drawing interest from large apparel brands, vertical manufacturing firms and large and small retail chains.
“We had an overwhelming reaction in Atlanta and we have been doing sample runs almost continuously,” Grier said. “We have been inundated by requests.”
Grier said he expects the first two contracts for mini-factories will be signed in July, one by a sports company and the other by a license apparel company.
AM4U has been running samples to demonstrate the technology and show the quality of the end product.
“Generally, companies send us some of their fabric, prepared to print with their artwork,” Grier said. “We produce a sample piece and we usually add to this some of the other possibilities of what we can do such as pull-through color or a separate color on the back.”
There are some “very large” companies interested, including the largest in certain categories, according to Grier, who said they are primarily interested because they have some signature products that don’t fit into a mass production supply chain. These products either require personalization or lots of choices in colors in print. The individualization offered by a mini-factory is a good fit, according to Grier.
AM4U is organizing an array of funding sources for eligible companies wanting to acquire their own mini-factory. These sources will have facilitators who can help companies with their business plan. Grier cautions that only firms with viable business plans will receive funding.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” he said. “You have to have a good plan. We will help them get that plant tighter and then go to the funding source. If the funding source approves it, they are on their way. If we want to switch from a supply and demand industry to demand and supply, we have to be able to deal with every single roadblock along the way. That’s why it has taken so long to get this going.”