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Amazon´s On Demand Textiles Manufacturing

Amazon´s On Demand Textiles Manufacturing

Amazon on demand manufacturingIndustry 4.0 is approaching textile manufacturing. Earlier this year, some attention has been given in the media to a patent granted to the e-commerce giant Amazon for on demand textiles manufacturing.

Media attention for Amazon´s patent

For example, the NY Times reported about the patent (printed version on May 1, 2017, on Page B4 of the New York edition).
In the financial media (e.g. investopedia), a discussion started whether Amazon, who “has a rapidly growing apparel business and is expected to surpass rival Macy’s Inc. to become the top clothing retailer in the U.S. by the end of this year” could be gaining a leading edge over competitors. The new technology could be an entry to fast fashion, in which Amazon would be competing with brands like H&M and Zara. The idea is that by using a new production concept Amazon would bring down their inventory cost and increase manufacturing speed (seekingalpha).
Austalia´s #1 news site wrote that through this patent Amazon “has revealed the e-commerce giant plans to become a major player in the clothing industry.”
The new on demand technology, coupled with the productivity and waste minimization advantages, could potentially redefine fast fashion.
Since the inventory will be held in the form of raw materials rather than higher value end-products, the implementation would help lower the inventory value and free up cash”, and “the avoidance of obsolescence since each textile product would be made based on order……as for the brand names like H&M, A&F, Uniqlo, Zara, etc, there should be some impact on their sales but it would be unlikely that they become entirely redundant, at least not in the short-term” concluded an author of seekingalpha.
So we asked ourselves, how realistic is this expectation? Can Amazon become a serious threat for leading fashion brands?
Surprisingly, Amazon did not roll out their patent internationally. We could not identify any foreign equivalents to the granted US patent. This means that outside the jurisdiction of the United States anybody is free to copy and apply the same technology. To miss the international patenting strategy is not really what one would expect from a world changing new technology. The lack international patenting could mean that Amazon does not consider the patent as a core technology, and the media´s attention and interpretation is a little bit far fetched.
Besides, Amazon is also not the first and not the only one who develops on demand manufacturing concepts, as a brief look at the prior art cited in the patent examination process and cited references shows.  Of course, the reputation of the e-commerce giant Amazon has caused more media attention as other developments of the machinery industry or start up businesses.
But let´s have a look at the technology.

The technology behind on demand textiles manufacturing

The patent number is US9623578B1, assigned to Amazon Technologies Inc, with priority date 2015-12-16, granted in the USA on  2017-04-18.
The technology is described as a “on demand apparel manufacturing system, which can quickly fill online orders for suits, dresses and other garments”. Amazon´s patented technology consists of a textile printer, a textile cutter and a computing device that aggregates and processes orders and configures instructions for further devices in the system.  Once an order is placed, the system manufactures clothes in batches, based on previous customer orders.

Amazon On demand manufacturing
The process starts when customers submit online orders. The patterns, printed onto rolls of fabric or other material, are arranged to reduce scrap.  A cut engine then carves out the various pattern pieces, while cameras analyze them to make sure they aren’t being distorted in the process. A robotic arm with a mechanical gripper places all the pieces into a tote on a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt delivers the totes to a sewing station, where “an attendant and/or automated sewing machine” stitches the item together. The items are then examined at a quality control station, packed up and shipped to customers.

The complexity in textile manufacturing

Many aspects of textile manufacturing processes are time consuming and require the coordination of many suppliers, vendors, manufacturers and retailers in different regions of the world. The complexity is enormous, not only technically but also logistically.
Textile manufacturing involves a variety of fabrics, colours and designs. The various textile materials such as cotton, wool, polyester, nylon, silk etc all require different coloration, finishing and processing technologies. To consider all of this in one integrated technical system, is of enormous complexity.

There are significant technical challenges which need to be addressed. For example, if uniformly coloured articles would be printed rather than dyed, the lack of a complete through-print will never match the uniformity of color appearance of a conventionally dyed article.

Nevertheless the approach seems very interesting in certain aspects.

A boost for digital printing?

The Amazon on demand manufacturing  approach seems attractive for printed articles and can give a boost to digital textile printing technology. Digital printing (ink jet printing) on textiles is a fast growing segment, although as of today digital printing is still a rather small fraction of overall textile processing.

Amazon fashion

Digital printing is more environmentally favorable compared to conventional printing. Integrated in Amazon´s new on demand manufacturing, the printing can be made in Western industrial centers. Today, textile production is made often in backyards in Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan. The new approach of on demand textile manufacturing can bring production back closer to the consumer.

Christian Schumacher

Dr. Christian Schumacher is the founder and managing director of StepChange Innovations GmbH, a technology development and consulting firm based in Germany. He has more than 20 years of experience in the chemical industry with global players such as Hoechst AG and DyStar Textilfarben GmbH as head of R&D, senior regional business manager Asia Pacific, head of e-commerce, head of marketing services, new product development manager and R&D chemist.

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