The sewn products industry hasn’t always been known for its drive to innovate. In fact, at one point, it resolutely opposed innovation. In 1830, Barthélemy Thimonnier designed one of the first sewing machines, receiving a patent from the French government with the intention of mass-producing uniforms for the French army. A year later, his factory was reportedly burned down by a mob of tailors fearful of being put out of work.
The turn of the 19th century introduced the Luddites, a new rebellion of textile workers who took up arms to fight against — you guessed it — machines. Yet, despite the destruction, it wasn’t really the new machinery with which they took issue. Rather, they were fighting against a new rise in industrial capitalism that granted machine owners and operators an unequal share of production profits.
What these history lessons teach us is that the world — and the industry, in particular — has a complicated past with technological progression.
The debate continues today. On a regular basis, we hear questions like “will robots take our jobs?” or “slippery slope” arguments warning against going too far with technology. Interestingly, the term Luddite stuck around and is used today as both an insult thrown at those seen as standing in the way of progress as well as a quaint term describing someone still holding tight to his flip phone.
Without a doubt, technology has changed the way we work and live. But change isn’t always a bad thing. Over the last twenty or so years there has been a significant rise in adoption of new technologies that have pushed the sewn products industry into a modern-day renaissance of sorts. As many production lines moved overseas, companies in the U.S. recognized the need for adaptability and the important role digitization and automation played in increasing efficiencies while decreasing domestic production costs in what was already an extremely competitive market. This also appealed to a new consumer base that demanded customizable, quickly made, and inexpensive products. Without technology, the U.S. sewn products industry would not have been able to survive (we’ll save the trade debate for another day).
Many players in the sewn products industry today are maintaining the momentum needed to innovate and evolve and keep pace with consumer and industry trends. Take for example on-demand manufacturing, 3-D sampling and pattern design, and smart textiles. These are just a few of the ways the industry is leveraging technology for business.
Even the impact of Covid-19 provides a good example of the importance of technology as businesses and countries across the world attempt to curb the spread. Our new reality — one of virtual events, telehealth appointments, and daily Amazon deliveries — has revealed how heavily we all rely on technology in our daily lives. And as we’ve spoken with companies that have quickly pivoted production lines to focus on the manufacturing of personal protective equipment, we’ve learned that the most successful ones were those that embraced technology — namely automation and the support of digital supply chain tools.
This month’s issue of Behind the Seams will take a deeper look into technology and its role in shaping the sewn products industry today. In addition to the latest headlines, we’ll feature a conversation with Gerber Technology’s Chief Commercial Officer Leonard Marano, explore the role of robotics with the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, and continue to highlight some of the exciting and innovative work from SPESA members.