Build Your Business:

Cultivating the Cutting Edge

From artificial intelligence to (possible) drone delivery, can innovation thrive in the decorated-apparel industry?

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

A world in which a garment is cut, sewn, decorated and shipped to the customer for delivery — all without the “normal” labor — is closer than you may think.

May 17, 2018

Just how innovative is this industry? Though it seems like the business of garment decorating hasn’t evolved much during the years, the fact is that everything is in a constant state of change.

It can be easy to miss new developments when you’re locked down in your shop. But as an apparel-decorating professional, there are a few things coming down the pike of which you should be aware, while some innovative developments are less clear. Let’s examine both.

Artificial Intelligence
By now, you may have read or heard about how artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to impact the business world, even though the news of it may seem like a science-fiction movie plot.

AI is the mechanism by which self-driving cars operate and computers play chess. Here’s how it works: Using previously collected data points, machines adjust to current circumstances by learning from experience. This is accomplished by quickly processing large amounts of data and recognizing patterns therein. Applying the data patterns to a situational analysis is how a computer knows what to do next.

It’s an interesting concept, but how will it affect what apparel decorators do? You may not be aware, but AI already is making its mark in our industry. A clear example can be found with Facebook marketing and its Pixel marketing engine, which allows your shop to understand the results of your advertising efforts.

Based on your parameters, once you’ve optimized your Facebook marketing bids, your company’s ads only will be seen by people who are most likely to buy. In fact, you can create a cloned audience from the data points, which will help promote your marketing efforts to a larger audience than just those who follow you.

Facebook knows its users’ data points so well that promoting the right messages and images is fairly easy. The term for this is “remarketing.” If you have ever visited a website for a product, and then seen that same product later in your Facebook news feeds, you’ve been remarketed.
Engineering these types of AI interfaces will allow decorated-
apparel shops to drive more business to their websites than ever before. Most shop owners, however, will be hard pressed to become experts in using such an AI system or even setting it up for their businesses. That’s why more forward-thinking shop owners use
marketing experts to help them bridge the gap and set everything up.

AI in Manufacturing
AI isn’t limited to setting up marketing for social-media accounts. In fact, the garment industry’s future will be predicated on robots cutting, sewing — and maybe even decorating — garments. Such actions can be programmed and part of an autonomous manufacturing hub.

Imagine a world in which the garment you order is cut, sewn, decorated and shipped to the customer for delivery — all without the “normal” labor associated with the process. That world may be closer than you think.
For countries like Bangladesh, where about 85% of the workforce is involved in the garment industry — according to recent Wall Street Journal reports — such a future could be disastrous for the economy. Already, companies such as SoftWear Automation are poised to start making T-shirts in the United States without many people involved in the process. In fact, the company’s automated machines can cut and sew a T-shirt in about 22 seconds.

AI in Customer Service
Another key area in which AI is making huge gains is customer service. Chatbots are computer programs that are designed to simulate human interaction online. When a customer sends an email or text, or uses an interface, the chatbot can start the initial engagement. This function can be activated around the clock — across platforms and devices — and significantly lowers staffing costs.

Programs like InfusionSoft or Intercom are being used to help communicate with customers — who can help themselves as the system provides answers — and drive engagement. Other features, such as a live chat with a real person, round out the experience.

Other software is driving better performance for companies, too. Do you need to capture information with a form? JotForm is a customizable, simple-to-use tool that allows shop owners to use forms to build data points for order entry, job applications and more.

Instead of using clutter-filled email to communicate with your team members, try using Slack. This is a way to instantly
communicate with employees and is gaining popularity in the decorated-apparel industry. Hundreds, if not thousands, of similar apps are being created to decrease the time and effort it takes to perform front-office or administrative-type work.

The best software programs use linking apps like Zapier to communicate with each other. Data collected in one automatically is delivered to another via this app. If an app or program doesn’t work with or link to Zapier, then it may not be sufficiently forward-thinking for some shops. Controlling information flow is a priority.

Manufacturer Innovation
Decorated-apparel manufacturers are concentrating on eliminating production steps and improving workflow. For example, SAATI’s new LTS 6080 laser computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging system uses a laser to image screens by exposing emulsion with concentrated light in exact areas for the art. No toner, separate exposure steps or consumables are needed.
This technology previously existed in larger print industries, but SAATI has made it work for the apparel industry by reducing scale and making it affordable.

Virus Inks’ wet-on-wet, water-based ink formulas eliminate the need for flashing between colors during production runs. This saves a tremendous amount of time and energy.

KIWO has patented a new innovation — a special tape made from screen emulsion — from inventor Geoff McCue. Many shops struggle with the time and effort it takes to tape screens before production and remove it afterward. The KIWO emulsion tape eliminates the post-production problem in the screen room, as screens can go through the normal reclaiming process. Because the tape is made from emulsion, it doesn’t need to be removed prior to the reclaiming process.

Gary Gayton, vice president of sales and marketing, KIWO, says the company hopes to have the product ready for field testing by late summer.
Ryonet recently launched its Quick Order phone app, which allows one-click shopping for consumables via a smartphone. Details, such as quantities, SKUs and colors, are set up in advance. The app allows production managers to order another bucket of metallic gold ink, a few more 156 screens and emulsion — all from the production floor while inspecting inventory.

The Wave of the Future
Everyone undoubtedly has heard about how Amazon and others are experimenting in the drone-delivery arena. The “last-mile” cost for delivery is a challenging segment in the logistical world of fulfillment.
Can you imagine the excitement a customer would feel if a drone delivered his favorite team’s commemorative T-shirt 30 minutes after winning a championship? Such a development may not be imminent in rural areas, but in larger cities with an Amazon Prime air fleet at the ready, it’s not unreasonable to think such a development could be just around the corner.
Couple that with the power of DTG print-on-demand production. The delivery turnaround times to which this industry has been accustomed for a long time constantly are under attack. That seven- to 10-day production cycle soon will be compressed into a few hours for small orders. In some markets, it already is less than three days.

Will you have to compete and get your own drone fleet? Of course not. Similar to UPS and FedEx, delivery partners will help. But paying attention and understanding this type of innovation will separate you from the herd. Companies like Hylio already are making their marks in this area.

Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production expert who focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning and more. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at

Embrace the New Generation

As time passes, it’s important to change with the business world. By 2020, Millennials will comprise 50% the country’s workforce; that figure increases to 75% by 2030, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Are you addressing this in your shop? How much of what you do is online or uses technology to drive business your way? Millennials are data-savvy and apt to use technology. Their passions center on social causes and the common good. They also crave instant gratification, as everything in their lives reaches them more quickly.

You must understand how your business model fits into this generation. How can you innovate? There’s nothing to do but to grab some new tools and get to work.