The threat from backshoring is real and looming large. It is time for the Indian garment industry to start planning to face the threat from Industry 4.0 accelerated by large-scale automation and robotics for tasks primarily handled by humans, writes Suhayl Abidi

A new factory is coming up in the US state of Arkansas that, when commissioned in 2019, will produce t-shirts stitched by sewbots, or sewing robots. The factory is being built by a Chinese manufacturer for Adidas. It will have 21 production lines manned by sewbots and will be capable of making 800,000 t-shirts a year at a cost of $0.33 (₹22) per unit. Even a country like Myanmar, with the cheapest labour cost in the world today, cannot compete with this.

The sewbots use a combination of patented highspeed computer vision and lightweight robotics to steer fabric to and through the needle with greater speed and accuracy than a human.

The idea of Industry 4.0 and intelligent manufacturing is gradually becoming a reality and is revolutionising labour-intensive clothing manufacturing.

The t-shirt is the most common garment outsourced from low labour cost countries and constitute almost one-third of the total garments produced. Each robot will replace 17 workers in this factory and the ripple effects will soon be felt in garment factories in the developing world. Jeans, which constitutes another 20 per cent of outsourced garments, would be the next.

This technology outflanks the labour cost advantage that India and other garment exporting countries have today. The loss of export revenue and employment in the long run will not only be felt by the garment manufacturing industry but span other labour-intensive sectors such as footwear, pillow, bath mats, automotive mats and towels, which can easily use sewbots.

Apart from reducing manufacturing costs, another advantage of backshoring is shifting manufacturing closer to the customer resulting in faster delivery times. This aspect is important for fast fashion. In the future, a consumer could take a body scan once, then order custom clothing, manufactured at a robotic factory to be delivered anywhere in the world.

In 2016, Amazon received a patent for a manufacturing system that produces ‘on-demand’ apparel. In late 2015, Adidas opened a heavilyautomated manufacturing facility in Germany called Speedfactory. The facility will align a small human workforce with technologies including 3-D printing, robotic arms and computerised knitting to make running shoes—items that are more typically mass-produced by workers in far-off countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam. The factory will cater directly to the European market, with digital designs that could be changed within minutes and robots that could seamlessly transmute them into footwear customised to the shifting preferences of European runners. By placing factories closer to consumers, Adidas could ostensibly leapfrog over shipping delays and expenses and could react to consumer needs within days.

Adidas was not alone in betting on the importance of customisation; practically every major consulting company—McKinsey, Bain & Company, Deloitte—has issued a do-or-die report in recent years about how ‘mass personalisation’ is the wave of the future.

When the Adidas Speedfactory opens at Atlanta in the United States, it will bring about 160 new jobs. Job listings for humans include roles for quality inspectors, tailors, process engineers with robotics experience and technicians who are adept in machining. The Speedfactories will produce about half a million pairs of shoes—just a sliver of Adidas’ total annual output, which runs close to 300 million.