We know that the future is coming, but it is sometimes hard to imagine what it will look like. The very clothes we wear are a good place to start, after all the industrial revolution was arguably fashioned by the mills of the textile industries that are synonymous with gritty manufacturing towns of the time. With the fourth industrial revolution fast approaching, it is likely that we will see some radical changes again in this all-pervasive industry, perhaps giving us some hints of wider changes in the decades ahead.
Because clothes are everywhere we look, we often forget the industry that supports them is even there. Yet fashion is worth trillions of dollars and employs many millions of people across the globe. Despite all the positives, textiles and clothing manufacturing still have a social and environmental dark side through poor work practices, excessive use of chemicals, huge volumes of water and waste at every stage of the business.
The drivers for change are everywhere: increasing consumer wealth, social awareness, opportunities for automation and emerging materials technologies. With all of the foundations in place, it is no surprise that investment is flooding in to take advantage of markets that haven’t even been defined yet.
Increasingly affluent consumers are seeking the latest fashion trends, which is driving more rapid product cycles than ever before. That means the gap between design and delivery to customers will continue to shorten. We can expect that customisation (akin to traditional tailoring) is going to be an expectation rather than an exception.
With greater affluence also comes social and environmental awareness. Consumers want to know which garments are ethically produced, the environmental impact and the carbon footprint of the supply chain. Integrity of this reporting is going to be increasingly important with digital signature technology likely to play a role.
Textile and clothing manufacture is still a highly labour intensive industry that has complex supply chains. The opportunity and cost motivation has allowed the exploitation of the most vulnerable workers globally. The nature of clothing, with rapidly changing styles, often short runs and complex material interactions has not lent itself to the same automation that other industries have enjoyed.
Technologies are emerging which overcome these obstacles. Radical new materials enable textiles to be 3D printed rather than produced in large quantities. The emerging generation of artificial intelligence combined with more dextrous robotics has the potential to solve past automation challenges.
With the automation of manufacturing, the cost drivers, and pursuit of faster consumer delivery, it is likely production will move closer to the end customer. This will combine with body scanning technology that is maturing to do away with clumsy tape measures and sizing guesses and allow an almost immediate turnaround of a custom garment.
Accurate fitting is the nirvana that online retailers are looking for as they disrupt their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. It is also a threat to established brands who have long depended on customers getting to know which size they are in a particular brand’s clothing making return custom an easy decision.
If the power of the brand reduces, individual designs are going to be even more important. Fashion designers are already frustrated by how quickly their intellectual property is borrowed. The Louis Vuitton monogram is an early example of trying to reduce knockoffs of their designs. However, counterfeiters have few qualms in making blatant copies. New materials are going to take the monogram to whole new levels, with embedded technology making those who choose copies immediately stand out rather than blend in.
But the impact of new materials and manufacturing goes beyond today’s fashion. We can look to the popularity of wearable computing to sense how technology embedded in our clothing will evolve. The killer use cases are only emerging, but we can assume that step counts will be derived directly from your pants, your heart rate from your shirt and your hydration needs from the perspiration detected over your body. The medical profession can look forward to providing ongoing care such as through detecting small blood spots which can be a sign of skin cancer.
Textiles, clothing and fashion were the harbinger of major changes to society in the past. We can look to this sector again as we navigate the fourth industrial revolution. There has never been a more exciting time for those with imagination to fashion the future.