The Future of Fashion Retail (part 1) – The Rise of the Robots
We keep reading about how tech is going to disrupt many industries with the advance of robotics, AI, etc… As a Tech Evangelist at Stylight, one of my mission is to stay up to date with technology trends and translate them into potential industry predictions to keep our business competitive on the market.
Throughout this series of articles, I will be going into how Robotics, Augmented Reality and Blockchain will change the landscape of the fashion/lifestyle industry and try to depict a possible near future.
#1 The rise of the robots
About 5 years ago I collaborated on a project of Bra 2.0. The Warby Parker of bras. The Bra industry has not been truly disrupted since centuries and our idea was to provide a fit closer to your body type – when most of the industry is just scaling up sizes, meaning if you have a small frame with large breast or a larger frame with smaller breast, you’ll be mostly out of luck to find a bra that fits well, with all the health-related implications that come with it.
We had the chance to pitch privately in front of one of the legends of Silicon Valley: Vinod Khosla – Co-founder of Sun Microsystem and founder of Khosla Ventures, one of the most well-regarded VC funds.
The discussion turned really fast to whether or not we’ll be using robots and 3D scanning to provide an entirely custom bra and a very fast delivery. I remember having the feeling that this guy was living in the future, but then he elaborated on how he already has companies in his portfolio manufacturing jeans with robots – and making custom deluxe burgers.
As it turned out, our approach was way too conservative for him but we got some precious insights into what the future may hold. We looked into the feasibility of robotic automation for our product, but given that a bra is one of the most complicated pieces of clothing (more than 40 different pieces involved), the cost and complexity of developing such infrastructure was a tad overwhelming.
5 years later I can see that Vinod was right – automation will be eating the lunch of many workers in the fashion industry pretty soon. Last year saw Sewbo launched his first sewing robot – a robotic arm that can guide pieces of fabrics through a sewing machine for assembly.
The cost of such an arm is still fairly high (35k), but if you think about it, factory labor is expensive and unreliable. A robot does not fall sick, does not battle for labor rights and can work 24/7.
At the last TexProcess America trade show in Atlanta, robots were all the rage, with for example, Baxter from RethinkRobotics showing how it can feed a two-headed sewing machine without any human intervention – for only $25k a pop. Read more about this here.
Some other companies such as Franka-Emika (a Munich-based company) are proving that cheap and fully programmable robot arms are now a reality – Franka’s arm costs 10k, you can order it online, and teach him a wide range of actions, and best of all it’s force-sensing – meaning it won’t hurt you if you come in its field of operation.
Taking this to another level, Adidas recently announced its new “SpeedFactory“, a facility based in Germany where robots are progressively replacing humans in the shoe fabrication process. The SpeedFactory brings back manufacturing to Europe, which might be another deciding factor for consumers.
What’s in it for the final customer? Think higher level of customization – right now a custom pair of sneakers still takes close to a week to be produced. Soon automation will be able to speed up this process tremendously while keeping cost down and raising quality to a much higher standard. Of course, this will have profound implications on a human-level for the factory workforce, but this is beyond the scope of this article.
Soon, thanks to 3D body scanning, new ranges of customization will emerge and you’ll get your next shirt or pairs of jeans fully tailored to your body type.
Not only robots are going to play a huge part in the future of fashion industry but another emerging trend is automated last mile delivery – soon your DHL or UPS courier will be replaced by a robot – that’s what Starship technologies and ZhenRobot are working on. Self-driving robots will some emerge on the sidewalk to deliver your goods faster and cheaper, right at your doorway.
In the next part of our series, we’ll see how AR (Augmented Reality), will change the dressing room and enable a new kind of e-commerce.