GENEVA — New technologies in the production of textiles, apparel and footwear, from computer-aided designs to robotics automation, coupled with mass customization technologies, could make offshore production in Association of Southeast Asian Nations such as Cambodia and Vietnam less profitable, curb their export growth and help bring back production in the U.S. and Europe, said a report by the International Labor Organization.
The report said as leading brands and retailers test technologies such as 3-D printing and automated sewing, ASEAN’s export growth “will incrementally decline.”
The fashion sector, which provides more than nine million jobs in ASEAN countries, “seems to be the most vulnerable to the extensive technological displacement of workers,” stated the study by the ILO’s Bureau for Employers Activities report, “ASEAN in Transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises.”
The study, which draws on a survey of enterprises in the region, and also of buyers and retailers, outlines technologies likely to have the biggest impact in the sector, including 3-D printing, body-scanning technology, computer-aided design, wearable technology, nanotechnology and environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques.
The report argues that automated cutting machines are becoming a widely available technology, and robots capable of sewing — called “sewbots” — will soon change the calculus of production.
The study points out that innovative technology at the sewing stage “is pushing apparel production to what seemed impossible in the past, sewing robots automating the more difficult and labor-intensive tasks in garment-making.”
“If the total cost of using sewbots proves more economical than sourcing from offshore countries, with direct savings accumulated in shipping and duty, and wider benefits of reduced reputational risk, a strong case can be made for reshoring garment production to places like California rather than Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam,” the study notes.
Advances in mass customization technology, the report suggests, could also make ASEAN factories redundant.
“Currently, body-scanning technology is limited to upper midrange products for which consumers pay a price premium,” it said. “What is yet to come is mass customization offered by large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Tesco or Carrefour at no additional cost. However, technology exists to make large-scale retail customization a reality.”
ILO researchers anticipate the new technologies will transform not only manufacturing, but also the supply chain and logistics.
“The economics for brands and retailers to place local manufacturing centers closer to major markets will become stronger, making next-day delivery possible for consumers,” the study surmises. “Because of this potential to please consumers in ways previously not possible, big players are re-evaluating their supply chain to cope with faster product design, personalization and production cycles.”
The ILO analysts said China, which is also eager to go up the value chain, could invest big in new technologies, adding to the pressures for ASEAN exporters.
Deborah France-Massin, director for the ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities, said: “Countries that compete on low-wage labor need to reposition themselves. Price advantage is no longer enough. Policymakers need to create a more conducive environment that leads to greater human capital investment, research and development, and high-value production.”