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From Conference to Carhartt to the Classroom

By Xochil Herrera Scheer

Xochil Herrera Scheer is a freelance pattern maker, product developer, and small business owner based in the Chicago area. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the Fashion Studies Department at Columbia College Chicago. Xochil attended our recent Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference in Detroit and shared insights on how the things she learned during the conference can be applied across the sewn products industry and academia.

I had the great opportunity to attend the SPESA Advancements in Manufacturing and Technologies Conference which took place September 13, 2022, in Detroit. The conference exceeded expectations in learning and networking with the textile industry, and I found there to be many parallels between the Detroit fashion industry and that of Chicago’s. The speakers and topics were relevant and forward thinking, and meeting people in various areas of the industry was valuable.

The conference opened with introductions from SPESA’s President, Michael McDonald, and Chairman Ed Gribbin, as well as a welcome message from Kevin Johnson, CEO, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), who shared some pretty amazing information around how Detroit has come to embrace the apparel and textile industry, even attracting big name players to the city such as Gucci, which recently opened a flagship store and collaborated with local brand Detroit Vs Everybody, and also the recent fashion show by Botega Veneta which was a huge success and attended by big name celebrities including Mary J. Blige and Lil Kim.

There seemed to be a lot of collaboration between educational institutions, private companies and brands, and government, in order to further initiatives around workforce development, and creating business opportunities for brands, encouraging them to stay in Detroit vs. moving to fashion hubs like Los Angeles or New York. I think there is much to be learned from this coming from Chicago, which also boasts numerous fashion programs including those of Columbia College Chicago, and I think that we can continue to work on those types of relationships to help graduates stay in Chicago and grow their fashion brands here. Chicago has lots of technology businesses that call this home, and so can potentially foster partnerships along those lines — especially with the new 3D Design program that is new to the college.

During the panel on Shifting Supply Chains (speakers Matthew Wallace, CEO, DXM Inc.;

Deb Ferraro, Vice President, Global Product Development & Technical Design, Carhartt; and

Drew Coleman, Senior Director, MICHauto), they discussed the many parallels between the automotive industry and the apparel industry, and how through the COVID era in particular, the automotive industry has worked to create a more localized supply chain — figuring out what they can source or procure closer to home — 5 miles/50 miles/within the USA/western hemisphere, etc. Managing risk through having a multi-tiered supply chain with alternatives mapped out is normal practice. This is more difficult with apparel because of specialized materials and development, but Ferraro of Carhartt offered her thoughts on continuing the expansion of their US footprint in order to make this better — working directly with farmers who supply raw materials to their fabric mills — and providing more transparency. Currently the US lacks a lot of infrastructure in apparel and textile manufacturing, so again bridging this gap through private-public partnerships is a way to propel things forward and rely less on global partners.

The issue of fast-fashion came up with discussion about SHEIN, which seemed to pop up out of nowhere in the last 5 years and now dominates the fashion world in terms of sales volume. They target the 16-22 year old market and produce styles hyper-fast, and is now worth more than Zara and H&M combined. To tackle this as US-based companies, organizations will need to come together to tackle supply chain issues, and help each other. Creating more vertical supply chains, where the brand owns and operates the factory, going back to the automotive model (even back to Henry Ford), is key. Most apparel companies today buy and sell goods that they design and manage, but do not make or manufacture anything themselves. Apparel is very labor intensive, but as an industry is under invested in as compared to technology and automotive companies.

This led into two panels, titled Industry Automation and Manufacturing and Industry Digitalization, where panelists dove into this idea further — is digitalization necessary and how can we utilize it better? Digital tools are helping us to design for manufacturing, but how does this help smaller brands who cannot afford these types of investments? How do we bridge the training skills gap that exists today? Cynthia Hutchison, Head of US Centre for Advanced Manufacturing in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, offered some solutions where they train formerly incarcerated individuals in technology and communication skills, in order to help them re-enter the workforce. Frank Henderson, President & Owner, Henderson Sewing Machine Company, talked about industry standardization which would help cut down on the number of variables in order to advance the technology. For example, there were once 30-40 different collar designs for men’s shirts, and the manufacturers standardized this down to 15 collars so that they could automate the sewing process — and this was across multiple manufacturers so that they could all benefit. This is an interesting thought, though interesting to note what unique features of design could be lost with that. Or else do those details become more custom and bespoke vs mass manufactured.

During the Digitalization discussion, there was a lot to be said about PLM and adjusting how it is being utilized — not just for storage of information, but rather utilizing the tools within it to help the brand be more profitable. Keeping communication within the system and making sure that knowledge is passed on. As we use Gerber’s Yunique PLM at Columbia College, I think that there are ways that we can mimic this idea in the classroom setting, by having teams submit their PLM tech packs or material sourcing requests, and receiving feedback from either staff who is set up as “vendors,” or even working with actual vendors to make this more real-world applicable for students to see how the interaction works. Similarly, 3D is a growing segment in the industry (and mentioned earlier is new to Columbia’s fashion program), but is also underutilized in terms of linking the design process with manufacturing process. I think there is much more to learn here.

In the last panels of the day, sustainability was a big topic, and we were introduced to some interesting labs and accelerator programs. Of note, the Zeis Textiles Extension and Flex Factory at NC State University was incredibly relevant. Their new lab features collaboration opportunities for businesses to utilize body scanning equipment, cutting, sewing and knitting machines, along with prototyping and material testing. While Columbia College does not offer all of those areas, perhaps it is a way we can further collaborate with companies in our local area or designers in our community, as we have lots to offer around digital and screen printing, embroidery, and other design services.

The day wrapped with a panel at the ISAIC facility, located above the Carhartt flagship store. This was particularly interesting to see as I had met with the ISAIC team at another trade show earlier this year (Texprocess Americas in May 2022), where they shared a booth with JUKI sewing machines. Here we got to see various testing equipment including AI-enabled video cameras where QC checks could take place more quickly and accurately in a lightbox with the specialized camera equipment, as well as their various sewing and knitting machines where they simultaneously train individuals in these specialized skills while working with Carhartt and other companies who need those items either prototyped or mass produced at smaller quantities, in a way that benefits both parties. They also have an industrial sewing operator program which prepares students for work in factory settings, and they license out their curriculum around the country. This may be an opportunity for a certificate program or at least a resource that we may utilize in the future to help train faculty on the latest in sewing and manufacturing.

In all, this was a great conference and I’m thankful for this opportunity to have attended on behalf of Columbia College Chicago. Coming from the fashion and product development side, I don’t always get to see as much on the technology and manufacturing side, outside of utilizing CAD and working with factories. Having a better understanding of how they operate and what they need in order to better support the brands — and what each segment struggles with in terms of technology adaptation, workforce development and supply chain management — is good information for us as educators to bring into the classroom and have discussions with students about as they enter various facets of the industry and work with different players.

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