Factory Floors — Don't Fear The Robots
“Made in the USA” is a label I haven’t seen on clothes since the early 90s. With the exception of brands who enthusiastically advertise their domestic production process, such as American Apparel, Red Wing Heritage, and New England Shirt Co., manufacturing has mostly been outsourced abroad.
Recently however, domestic assembly has started to look attractive to American companies in the retail, consumer goods, electronics, automotive and aviation industries. Production automation — stemming from “Fourth Industrial Revolution” advances in robotics and artificial intelligence — is driving companies to move back home. Companies willing to adapt to advancement in technology and domestic production will be the first to see significant differences in production scaling, efficiency, and delivery time.
The addition of sophisticated machinery is a benefit for brands because it translates to faster processing time and greater profitability. Moreover, developments in robotics and AI will help brands better navigate supply and demand as it relates to changing trends. Popular brands are already capitalizing on the domestic production movement.
In June Under Armour opened the UA Lighthouse facility in South Baltimore to, “serve as a beacon to make product better, faster, and more efficiently, ultimately solving real problems for athletes…” The 35,000 square-foot facility creates a space where designers, production workers and new technology can collaborate in a single innovative space thereby bringing manufacturing closer to where products are sold.
Adidas is following suit. The German-based company announced its plans to open a sneaker “Speedyfactory” in Atlanta to expedite the process between producing a shoe and delivering it to the customer. The operation will be helmed by robots to make shoes at a rate faster than before. The move will create approximately 160 manufacturing jobs in the area — a big step for a company that currently produces most of its goods in Asia. This trend of moving production also extends far beyond the world of fashion. General Motors, Boeing, and Mars Candy are also bringing manufacturing stateside in an effort to compete with consumer demand, react to trends faster and lower import duties.
As technology shifts to the automation of robots and AI, there’s been the growing fear that robots will take away human jobs. However, technology offers a huge opportunity to complement human skills, and won’t replace humans in the workforce anytime soon. Robots are fantastic tools for repetitive and dangerous work, but their current capabilities can’t handle dexterous intricacies or detailed customization required in an era where personalization is king. Plus, the industry requires a skilled workforce to operate machine infrastructures, effectively increasing the quality of production jobs in the long run.
The move back to the States also means bigger benefits for customers. Consumers can expect shorter delivery distances, cheaper shipping, on-shored customer service assistance, and the satisfaction of knowing something was produced in the country (according to a Consumer Reports survey, 8 in 10 American consumers say they would rather buy an American-made product than an imported one).
All these domestic changes mean brands need to be prepared for the inevitable shift in consumer trends. Fueled by the customer ethos of social consciousness and the desire to boost local economies, brands that make their products in the U.S. are expected to acquire customers faster than their competitors. Brands that manufacture abroad will need to take an earnest look at their capabilities abroad versus domestically.
In order for brands to stay competitive they’ll need to adapt to automation and advanced production trends. Just as consumer preferences have changed in the last 10 years, robots will continue getting smaller and more dexterous. Only time will tell how this transforms U.S. manufacturing , but be on the lookout for another domestic production heydey.
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