As with most other industries the Fourth Industrial Revolution looks set to dismantle the traditional structures of the apparel industry. A cursory review reveals that artificial intelligence is heavily employed or intended to be employed in the user-end of the spectrum. AI-driven chatbots interact with customers while smart algorithms predict shifts in trends and consumer demands.
However, on the manufacturing end, it is more difficult to apply complex automation, let alone reap the sophisticated benefits of Industry 4.0. Why?
The apparel industry deals with a vast amount of variations, even within it's framework of homogenous mass production.
A manufacturer could produce 3000 types of one dress easily, but the next batch of 3000 dresses will require different fabrics, hardware, and finishings.
The inhomogeneous nature of fabrics – especially softer fabrics like cotton and silk – pose a problem for effective machine manipulation, thus still requiring human hands.
However, these difficulties have not deterred innovators from making headway in a number of efforts:
Sewbo is an American start-up which has successfully created a robot that can fabricate an entire t-shirt on its own. They have addressed the problem of malleability by dipping the fabric in a special polymer to harden it, thus allowing for effortless manipulation by the robot. When the garment comes together, the polymer is rinsed off, returning the fabric to its former state.
Image Credit: Sewbo
In China, EEKA Fashion Corp is currently developing smart manufacturing capabilities for its factories, making room for greater flexibility in their production line, this allowing customers to personalize their dresses.
The natural question that follows – will smart manufacturing and artificial intelligence put garment workers out of a job? Many sources anticipate such an outcome although EEKA has insisted that manual labour will continue to be indispensable well into the future.
If we worry about garment workers being put out of a job, is the over-riding concern merely that they have a job, never mind the working conditions or less-than-living wage? Should we pledge to protect the status quo garment worker job?
What are the ethical implications of increasing automation in the apparel industry? Are we dismantling slave labour and child labour altogether, rendering them ineffective in the face of machine efficiency? Are we putting an end to sweatshops or putting an end to jobs? Are we protecting livelihoods or or we implicitly supporting flagrant labour violations?
We'll continue exploring the issue of automation and sweatshops in The Sweatshop Debate series. Follow us on Twitter @FIF_Freedom to keep up to date!