Automation can tackle rising labour costs in garment manufacturing
San Francisco-based Unspun is a venture-backed robotics and apparel company, building custom jeans for each consumer on demand. The company's mission is to reduce global carbon emissions by at least 1 per cent through automated, localised and intentional manufacturing. It has an office in Hong Kong as well. Walden Lam, chief hustler and co-founder of Unspun, talks to Fibre2Fashion about how the company is using robotics to deliver custom-fit jeans on demand.
How did you come up with the idea for denim Unspun?
Beth (my co-founder) and I had brief experiences in the industry. Motivated by the waste and inefficiencies, she was working on an idea to create a technology that can create apparel on demand and we decided to work on this together while we searched for a technical co-founder and eventually found Kevin. The three of us spent a lot of time speaking to consumers and realised there is an acute pain point in not being able to find fitting denim jeans. We thought that solving this pain point was a good starting point for bringing on-demand technologies to the market. That was the beginning of our journey in denim Unspun.
You are a recent start-up. How much did you invest in technology to deliver custom-fit jeans? What was the investment in robotics? By when do you hope to break even?
Quite a bit, but never enough; we have poured our soul, sweat and tears into what we create, but we can always improve. As a start-up, our unifying goal is to reduce human carbon footprint by 1 per cent through our technologies. Philosophically, we will never achieve break-even until we are at least fractions away from that goal.
What is your current team size?
We currently have thirteen full-time employees.
How many pair of customised jeans you have made till date?
What did the introduction of robotics mean in terms of retrenching of workers?
Introducing robotics means automation and higher efficiencies that respect the planet. Robotics introduces new opportunities for workers. These jobs would facilitate training and upskilling in the form of education. Conversely, another way to look at automation is to dig deeper into the economic gains of workers. Currently, a high-skills seamstress can put together a pair of custom pants in about two hours from beginning to end. With automation, he or she can focus on the most skill-demanding steps, e.g. back pocket placement, and can realistically finish a pair of custom jeans under 20 minutes. Ultimately, he or she will share a greater economic profit through automation.
What does robotics mean in terms of outshoring for manufacture?
One benefit of automation is that onshoring will become more and more feasible. Especially in the world of fashion where consumer taste and trend change rapidly, supply chain needs to keep up. Enabling manufacturing to happen closer to end market will allow brands and producers react in a more agile fashion to these changing dynamics.
For outsourced manufacturing activities, we are observing a shift away from a sole focus on cost. In the medium term, we are also seeing the beginning of the end of cheap labour as we are already producing in places like Ethiopia. Labour costs are generally going to rise and manufacturers are already looking to automation as part of the solution.
Efficiency will increase with robotics. Right now, many people choose to do business based on lowest cost. This has proven detrimental to the conditions and livelihood of workers. With automation and robotics, the playing field will level out. Ideally, this encourages localised manufacturing as the forms and cost of producing closer to home will become more accessible and desirable. There are endless benefits to this. For one, money flows into your neighbourhood. For another, products are made to the liking and the level of quality the people buying them want (which typically means better quality). Local production gives authority to local people who can control and implement responsible practices for workers and the environment. With products reflecting a place and time, diversification is a natural byproduct. The world would look and feel entirely different than it does now, given more care and awareness for people near and far.
How does your supply chain network work? Which regions of the world form your supply chain?
We work closely with our manufacturing partners to deliver the quality customers expect of our denim jeans. Currently, we work with partners in parts of Asia, Europe and North America.
The jeans market is overcrowded. How differently do you wish to promote your product?
We chose to manufacture customised jeans for this reason. Everyone wears them and wears them differently, so it was a great product to reinvent the process for. Since the jeans are made from body scanning technology and fabrics that form best to each style, made sustainably, our jeans are inherently different. In regards to promoting that, we think it speaks for itself once someone wears them. We intend to send our messages of automation, sustainability, inclusion, and fun to show what our product stands for. Our product shines because of the intentional methods and materials we use.
Describe the process of making customised jeans.
Once customers decide it's time for their dream jeans, they will design their denim according to their unique style through:
1.cut-mission, offline, launch
2.colour of denim
4.a 30-second, 3D body scan at one of our stores or a scanning station
Your perfect-fit jeans will arrive at your door in two to three weeks.
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