Enabling a harmonious ecosystem of human beings and machines
Over the past decades, Bangladesh has surmounted expectations by transforming it into one of the largest apparel exporters in the world. Given the large-scale manufacturing capacity, the country is one of the most prospective testbeds for implementing technologies under the fourth industrial revolution.
A strategic transformation for this sector using the breakthrough technologies will push the boundaries of innovation in the country and increase efficiency over the coming decade – an era that is going to be shepherded by applied computational intelligence.
Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution is the age of digital connectivity which is defined by the interaction between technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), additive manufacturing (3D printing), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), decentralised ledger technology (Blockchain), robotics, genetic engineering, quantum computing, cybersecurity and 5G.
This transformation will have a substantial influence on various industries; one of them being apparel and fashion. In the corporate world, the first definition of industry 4.0 was ‘smart manufacturing,’ having factories at the core of digital transformation.
However, it was soon apprehended that making factories smart is not the only facet of this change. The network of interactions and interconnected devices can create a web of interoperability among businesses, assets, and its stakeholders; and create a supply-chain where the users can interact and exchange data with the cyber-physical systems directly.
Provided the practicalities of this transformation, the fashion industry is one of the critical contexts to analyse, as it will go through a direct change due to the industry 4.0 paradigm shift. Future factories are about to become smarter, creating synergy among human beings and technologies, diminishing errors in the process. A connected smart factory would enable the use of artificial intelligence for production of goods, use IoT sensors to improve operations and utilise big data to carry out self-diagnostics and optimisation.
Besides, robotics can be used to sort items in the supply chain or even perform essential human functions. Considering the long-term expenses, it is easier to train robots to perform repetitive tasks as machine learning techniques can be applied to improve the learning capabilities over time. For instance, fashion retailer GAP Inc. is using SORT, an item sorting robot in its distribution centres in California. VR/AR, on the contrary, is a front-end technology – primarily intended for use by consumers. However, VR/AR could also be exploited to radically improve designing processes and augment products in 3D before production.
Traditionally, when a large order is placed, thousands of copies of the same design are manufactured. Implementation of additive manufacturing will see the rise of this “fast fashion” approach. An article published on Springer Fashion and Textiles suggests that 3D printers can be used to offer customised products allowing greater merchantability. Moreover, by deploying and connecting multiple 3D printers in a factory, manufacturers would be able to develop a fast response approach driven by data analytics.
According to the researchers from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, by employing machine learning algorithms, supply chain and logistics could also be made more efficient. Embedding big data analytics and machine learning algorithms to understand patterns would allow efficient production of complex product portfolios, smaller design life cycles, reduce production waste and increase consistency of customer needs. Experimentations on full automation may lead to expensive mistakes; hence companies such as Tesla and Amazon are still using a combination of human workers and AI.
Every known global clothing brand such as Zara, H&M, M&S, Gucci, or Burberry produces a substantial portion of their goods in Bangladesh. Even though the export market was strongly affected due to Covid-19, according to the data compiled by the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) and BGMEA, the country still managed to export $27.949 billion in 2019-20, compared to the total goods export of $33.674 billion the year before. That is a colossal 83 per cent of all goods shipped in the last fiscal year. The United Kingdom is one of the largest importers of Bangladeshi RMG, purchasing goods worth $3.836 billion. Evidently, the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag is visible also in every single fashion retailer in the UK.
As international brands are increasingly dependent on Bangladesh, the country needs a sustainable and strategic approach towards adopting new technologies. Developing countries are trailing a few years behind in adopting such measures. Instead of supervising factory workers and equipment linearly, manufacturers should be open to learn from every step and feed the information back, leading to smarter decisions.
However, replacing humans with robots comes with a price tag. According to BGMEA, Bangladesh has 4600 factories in the country. Consequently, a large portion of the country’s workforce is factory workers. Application of new technologies would render many people unemployed – therefore, a strategic approach for implementation, training and education is mandatory.
At an organisational level, the approach to adopting industry 4.0 in manufacturing requires specificity. The objectives could be enhancing productivity, market expansion or risk reduction. Technological enhancements are being carried out on a smaller scale; for instance, Envoy Textiles Ltd, a denim fabrics manufacturer, has been using robots in their manufacturing plant for a few years. Shimmy Technologies, an Industry 4.0 company, is carrying out upskilling and training programs for Bangladeshi factory workers.
Furthermore, small tests could lead to greater efficiency. For instance, deploying robots to move merchandise in a warehouse or conduct repetitive tasks such as sorting items or folding products could provide data on whether or not they are useful. Instead of completely overhauling a warehouse, a small part of it can be dedicated to plug-and-play technologies to comprehend the abilities of robots moving heavy items, making the process interoperable and modular. If the automation benefits the company, then more robots can be added to the system, slowly transforming the entire warehouse.
This is not conceptualisation of replacing humans with a spectrum of automated and connected devices. Countries like Bangladesh require a minuscule and tactical approach of having humans and AI working in harmony. Some tasks cannot entirely be performed by an AI. Hence, the factories eventually need humans for functions such as maintenance of robots and comprehend a sensical output from the data.
Therefore, having the most expensive technology for automation is not the answer. Instead, a ‘trial and error’ approach would allow pinpointing components that factor into enhancing efficiency.
Additionally, the government’s intervention is crucial to train workers and make them competent in technologies by creating certified courses on subjects such as additive manufacturing. The High-Tech Park Authority seems to have taken a foundational approach towards such training programmes.
In this context, Mr Abrar Hossain Sayem, Managing Director of Merchant Bay, says, “In terms of apparel or RMG industry, it is ready to adopt technology, but the cost is high due to lack of technical intellectual capacity of users. We need to heavily invest in capacity building of our human resources to use technology, but other than that, the mindset and organisational culture has become a lot more ready than the last few years.”
The world is currently experiencing a paradigm shift transforming modes of business operations and production. The large-scale deployment of breakthrough technologies will be the country’s entrance to this new epoch. To begin with, companies in Bangladesh should prioritise adopting one technology that might solve their biggest problems. By testing proof of concepts, companies can start escalating dependency on data-centric devices, which will eventually lead to greater investments in these technologies.
The fashion industry in Bangladesh is at a mature stage of the business lifecycle, and to gain a competitive advantage to its competitors, the country needs to adopt efficient technologies. It is time to extensively dive into carrying out research and development to surmount the idiosyncrasies surrounding human dependency and stay ahead of the rising competitive pressure.
Farabi Shayor is the Founder of IntelXSys (UK) and author of the book Exponential Progress.