Imagine walking into a clothing store, designing a customized outfit, and having it made right there in 30 minutes.
This is the future of clothing manufacturing envisioned by Cal Poly Pomona’s apparel merchandising and management department and a group of international businesses.
Together, they have created a one-of-a-kind factory in Rancho Cucamonga to demonstrate how e-commerce, digital production methods and innovative coloring techniques can revolutionize apparel manufacturing.
“Ultimately, this factory will serve as a model and help revive U.S. manufacturing, restoring higher-paid jobs and profits,” says Professor Peter Kilduff, chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s apparel merchandising and management department.
The university stands to benefit financially and from the educational opportunities that arise from participating in the venture.
Currently, most people buy apparel from stores that stock large inventories of clothes made in overseas factories.
But the model developed by the apparel merchandising and management department and its partners in the Virtual Inventory Manufacturing Alliance changes everything. The new manufacturing process can make clothes in a factory, but is compact enough to fit into the back of a store, meaning retailers can produce customized garments for customers on demand.
In the new model, interactive technology allows consumers to browse online catalogs to find an outfit, customize it to their taste, and then make a purchase. A manufacturer or retailer then makes the garments with a new coloring technique that’s fast and more environmentally friendly.
Traditional coloring methods require toxic chemical dyes and consume lots of water: A typical men’s dress shirt could consume around 120 gallons. The new color infusion method, which works on synthetic materials currently and which VIMA is planning to expand to cotton and wool, does not require any water or chemicals. This technique infuses a permanent color that can even be bleached safely.
After the color infusion, an optical cutter cuts the cloth into the various parts to be sewn together. The entire manufacturing process is so quick that clothes can be ready in 30 minutes.
The Rancho Cucamonga factory is geared for wholesale production or direct-to-consumer shipping. But the set-up is small enough that it can fit into the back of a retail store: customers could walk into a clothing shop and walk out with a customized outfit in less than an hour.
The new process reduces or eliminates many of the costs associated with the apparel business, including carrying huge inventories of finished products or exporting manufacturing to overseas factories. The inventory is instead “carried” online: A few gigabytes of memory can contain the virtual equivalent of the clothing needed to stock a 100,000-square-foot warehouse.
“Retailers will no longer experience losses when apparel is out of stock or because they have to offer discounts to sell off excess inventory,” Kilduff says.
A manufacturer could increase its profits by as much as 400 percent, according to AM4U Inc., the company operating the Rancho Cucamonga factory.
Business and Education Partnership
The alliance, which includes 10 companies, is working with wholesale and retail clients in Southern California and is currently awaiting regulatory approval to begin a direct-to-consumer operation.
The project began as a partnership between AM4U and the apparel merchandising and management department to revitalize clothing manufacturing in the United States. It ultimately grew to include the 10 companies that formed the Virtual Inventory Manufacturing Alliance and participated in building the factory.
The apparel merchandising and management department sponsors the academic research and educational programs and courses related to the manufacturing process. The alliance will provide the department with educational, training and research opportunities.
Kilduff envisions opportunities for other college and departments on campus to participate in the alliance, including business, science, engineering and athletics.