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WFSGI Forum tackles sustainability, speed to market, need for supply chain evolution

Published December 2, 2015

HONG KONG (BRAIN) — From how to implement lean production to how to get product to market faster and increase the value of a product by reducing or repurposing manufacturing waste into new products or revenue streams, the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry’s third annual Manufacturers Forum discussed several challenges manufacturers, brands and retailers face in today’s consumer-driven global marketplace.

The two-day conference is held this week in Hong Kong, where earlier this year the WFSGI opened an office to better service Asian members.

The forum is hosting nearly 200 sourcing, supply chain managers and operations directors from sporting goods apparel, footwear, textile and bike industries to discuss new technologies and market changes that are affecting supply chain processes and traditional structures.

Among the top issues that speakers highlighted are an ever-growing need to reach the consumer faster and to fully maximize the value of manufacturing and product development.

“It’s no longer about time to retail, but time to consumer,” said Janice Wang-Millard, CEO of Alvanon, a global apparel business and product development consultancy firm. “The right product, if not delivered when the consumer wants to buy it, is not the right product.”

Wang-Millard noted that speed to market was the most mentioned challenge for apparel retail and brand senior management in a recent survey by Just-Style.com, an online news site for the apparel and textile industries. And that being fast to market offers several benefits to manufacturers and brands aside from meeting consumers’ changing purchasing habits, including fewer markdowns, increased turns and reduced product obsolescence.

Wang-Millard offered specialty fashion retailer Zara as an example of a company that is quick to market and elevating the benchmark for other apparel retailers. Among some of the hallmarks for Zara are that products are scarce and limited. Zara is vertically integrated and manufactures most of its products close to home, and controls distribution. Zara’s speed to market translates into much higher customer visits on average — 17 times per year — than other specialty clothing retailers, who count on average four to five visits per customer.

She said manufacturers and product development teams need to work closer and have strong interfaces to shorten lead times and improve cost, speed and efficiency. And new technologies such as 3D printing are increasing the speed of manufacturing and are being embraced by the new millennial generation entering the workforce.

Improving speed to market means defining roles and responsibilities for players along the entire product supply chain — from the brand to sourcing to manufacturing — and putting equal focus on processes, people and proximity, Wang-Millard said.

But aside from speed, Steve Evans, a professor at the University of Cambridge whose field of research is environmental and social sustainability in design and manufacturing, pointed to what he calls circular manufacturing practices. Evans urged manufacturers to find waste and turn it into money.

“There is enormous waste in our current system for exchanging value,” he said. ”We keep putting efforts into the labor part of the equation for manufacturing costs. But there’s other costs we haven’t squeezed with as much enthusiasm.”

Evans noted that the current manufacturing system isn’t sustainable long term as more natural resources are exhausted. He defined circular manufacturing as a process that keeps every molecule, fiber, fabric or product within the system that creates value for as long as possible.

And he offered several companies as examples of how they’re experimenting to find value throughout a product life cycle or repurposing waste into a new product or revenue source. He noted companies like ABSugar, a U.K. sugar factory, that is turning byproducts of creating sugars into new products including pharmaceuticals, and also using steam and CO2 they generate to grow tomatoes.

And Patagonia’s "common threads" program, where it repairs or helps customers fix tears or other damage to its technical jackets for free, was an experiment that has yielded higher sales for the company, he said. Though at first glance, it seems like the brand is hurting future sales by extending current product life.

Or companies like Elvis & Kresse, which makes expensive handbags out of decommissioned London Fire Brigade hoses that are headed for landfills. “If you want to get rich, get into the recycle industry,” he said.

Evans noted that much of the conversation around manufacturing revolves around total cost rather than total value. And manufacturers are leaving money and opportunity on the table by not identifying the value failures across their product’s life and reducing value waste. “Look for waste, reduce energy, water, material intake — that builds the muscle to develop more interesting solutions,” he advised.

The growing trend toward sustainable manufacturing is only one way the supply chain is evolving. Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles, a nonprofit that researches new materials and machinery and runs an applied research center, told attendees that significant global market changes and digital disruption are changing consumption patterns. Asian nations will continue to be areas of consumption growth while developed nations, including countries in Europe and the U.S., will continue to see diminished consumption. 

“The world we live in and sell things in is changing very rapidly,” said Keh, who teaches supply chain operations at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and at the University of Hong Kong.

Keh said manufacturers today make decisions about where to source and manufacture based on macro issues they have no control over including labor costs, export tariffs and duties or currencies. And sourcing and supply chains have been set up to optimize everything to the 40-foot container. “But the consumer is saying they don’t want that,” he said.

The new Y-shape supply chain, Keh said, is focused on the consumer and not the brand or the retailer, and it’s aligned, adaptive and agile instead of long and hierarchical.

“3D and other types of adaptive manufacturing are going to change the way consumers look at availability in their size and mass customization,” Keh added.

The supply chain of the future will have to consider small quantities instead of large quantities, in the right size, and sustainability, using materials that don’t require use of a lot of water or cause pollution, Keh noted. “I think we have to figure out elegant solutions that create answers for consumers,” he said. 

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