The Richardization of Apparel Manufacturing (And Why That's a Good Thing)

By Sarah Krasley, CEO, Shimmy Technologies

I haven’t seen Richard in more than twenty years, but even today I can still remember every detail of his face.


He and I met while I was working as a machine operator of an automated envelope-making machine, one that I had been barely trained to operate.


Thinking back, I was terrified of (depending on the day) injuring myself, being fired, and/or decreasing the productivity of the other workers on my line because I made so many mistakes. All these things translated into my lack of the confidence that probably would have made me a much better, steadier operator.


Sometimes the mistakes caused a misfed piece of paper; sometimes it was the finished stock coming off the machine too quickly for me imagine Lucille Ball gobbling chocolates on that assembly line and you'll get the picture but whatever the reason for the break down, Richard would inevitably appear to save the day. He would work his magic, the panic-red “Machine Idle” stack light would stop flashing, my equally red-cheeked shame would subside, and I’d hope that maybe, thanks to that expert “Richard Reset,” I wouldn’t lose the job and the income I needed.


Richard approached fixing those machines with the kind of curiosity and care that anyone would want in an employee the kind of mindset that’s hard to teach via conventional methods, but easy to recognize in an employee.


Over the last twenty years of my career in digital transformation in manufacturing, I’ve met countless other Richards in car factories fixing fancy five-axis laser cutters, in garment factories whispering to broken 3D knitting machines, in students I taught and mentored in top technology engineering graduate programs who could take apart a machine and put it back together to work better or to do something absolutely delightful. These are the tinkerers, the ones with an uncanny ability to see that tiny problem gumming up the works, who love coming to the rescue of folks who don’t have that ability.


I’ve also had the privilege of helping ordinary folks become the kinds of "Richards" we need to build resilient manufacturing industries.


My team and I feel a deep calling to scale-up this kind of training around the world. That's why we're laser-focused on skill development: we think it’s a critical gateway in need of some modernization and innovation to achieve the number and quality of workers we need to meet the current moment.


I’m sure all of us can think of a particularly painful technical training we’ve undertaken death by PowerPoint, Covid-friendly online webinars, or maybe even a zippy quiz on the phone while waiting for a take-away dinner order to be ready. I’m willing to bet that your mind wandered as you went through those trainings, and that whatever you learned atrophied pretty quickly after.


Now, let’s also think about the exact opposite of those "lack of concentration" moments. I see them every time I take the subway people of every age and income bracket so engaged in what they are doing (you can see it on their faces) that they barely look away from their little screens. They often end up missing their stops, hunched over that little piece of digital real estate in their palms with looks of victory and defeat washing over their brows as they excitedly battle hot rods, collect candy, care for animals, and build resilient cities on their way to day jobs doing things far less valiant.


While it’s easy to discount video games as frivolous, or just for fun, they couldn’t be better for workforce training. I’ve helped bring games online that used virtual reality (VR) to first entice, and then train, new construction workers to do some really hard jobs at Bechtel welding on the high steel 20 stories up with much more practice and safety than they’d get in conventional trainings.


We’ve relished the results of FoldIt, a game that is being used right now to capitalize on game-players learning how to analyze coronavirus spikes and give scientists vetted datasets to help them move faster towards a cure, as the game’s devoted fan base has been doing for cancer research since 2016.


And in our own manufacturing industry, Shimmy has been using game-based training in Bangladesh and Indonesia for the past two years. This kind of training helps sewing operators without any computer literacy or education after fourth grade achieve the levels of digital literacy needed to operate machines with digital controllers, and, therefore, become the multi-skilled workforce needed in the post-Covid world.


We believe training is a machine company’s calling card. Done well, it’s the thing that gets you a devoted fan base of “Richards” that increases your popularity, maintains your machines in the field, and gives you an honest feedback loop that helps with future product and service development. Done well, training delivers the ROI on which your customer depends. And, most importantly, it’s the seminal experience of a new employee that can make or break whether they decide to stay the course and generate throughput that leads to more revenue and more equipment purchases.


While market predictions can seem bleak, we are producing PPE domestically now, and in the process, growing a semi-skilled workforce that can be retrained to do more than make gowns when the time comes. In the 300 garment factory interviews my team is conducting for our Apparel Automation Pulse research project, we are hearing unanimously that factory owners have an appetite for automated equipment. And even despite the downturn, they are ready to invest in anything that helps them automate sewing operations now.


These factors make me optimistic that we’ll get our wish of reshored manufacturing sooner than we thought. We’re growing our national talent pipeline, we’re selling more automated equipment, and we’re being forced to innovate and streamline due to the rapid response needed. All of which is making us run leaner and bringing us closer to the cost-competitive rate that can make our reshoring dream a reality.


On a personal note, these factors motivate me to work harder on Shimmy’s commitment to build an engaged, resilient, apparel workforce closer to our headquarters in the United States.

To this end, I’m happy to announce that Shimmy is putting together a team to go after this year’s X Prize, an accelerator program designed to help innovators solve the world’s most pressing “moonshot” problems. This X Prize aims to help bring solutions to rapidly reskill the millions of unemployed Americans into sectors and jobs they might never have considered. In two weeks, Shimmy will form a team to build prototypes, test them through U.S. workforce boards, and build more game-based technical trainings that help 500 unemployed people train in 60 days to enter our industry. I believe we innovate faster when we work together and therefore invite any interested SPESA member to contact me to join our team. We’d be lucky to have you.


I try to see every tough moment in life as an opportunity. And we’ve got a big opportunity right now. If we want to cultivate a dedicated, resilient U.S. workforce, we’ve got to think differently about how to carry it out. Now is the time for big thinking, experimenting, and blending new methods with deep industry experience. I’m all in. Who’s with me?


Shimmy Technologies is a women-owned and operated Industry 4.0 company preparing the apparel industry for the future of work by developing design, data management, and workforce development applications. Visit www.shimmy.io to learn more.


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