Industrial Automation Insider: Here’s Proof of What Automation Can Do – and How Flexible Manufacturing Can Be – in the Fashion World
Kirby Best, CEO of Bespoke Manufacturing Company, explains how robots, machine vision systems, and people are working together to help up-and-coming apparel designers make their break in a wallet and environmentally friendly way.
It’s said that “necessity is the mother of innovation,” and Kirby Best knows this better than anyone. When his wife was fighting breast cancer, they couldn’t find comfortable, functional pajamas for her. So, they decided to fashion their own. Through that experience, the pair realized how difficult and expensive it was to produce small batches of custom items, not to mention how unsustainable the fashion industry is from an environmental perspective. (Did you know it takes 1,800 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans?!)
Starting to appreciate what custom fashion designers all over the world go through, Kirby decided to take everything he knew from his 40 years in the publication and manufacturing industries and turn frustration into opportunity. The traditional manufacturing model clearly wasn’t the right model for every industry, nor every customer the industry serves.
So, he founded Bespoke Manufacturing Company (BMC).
At the 30,000-foot level, BMC is a custom fashion manufacturer. Workers print, cut, and sew in a modular, build-to-order production operation. However, if you dive deeper into its business model, you’ll see BMC is far from your typical textile producer. It is an impressively sustainable technology and information company at its core – which is exactly what Kirby hoped it would be when he retreated from the standard manufacturing model and risked it all with a wildly different, yet very smart approach to custom fashion.
“Fixed conveyors are not the way of the future,” he told me when we started working together a couple years ago, shortly after he founded BMC. In fact, fixed conveyors really aren’t even the best way to get goods crafted and out the door today – at least not in an industry where small batch orders are the norm. There are a lot of moving parts in custom fashion, and linear motion isn’t always the most efficient way to get things out the door. Plus, there are many design flaws in traditional apparel production models, such as the excessive water use (as I already mentioned), extreme pollution from factories, hard-core human health impact, and all-around waste.
That’s why Kirby did something that no one thought possible and built an environmentally friendly, automated factory (from the ground up) that has people, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and advanced scanning and imaging technology working in perfect harmony.
Get this: 40% of the factory – which is the first in a network of factories that Kirby is assembling – is presently equipped with conveyors; the other 60% is powered by AMRs. But very soon, the split will be 20% conveyors/80% AMRs!
Now, you might assume based on his automation ambitions that his goal is to replace human workers…to fully automate production and make it more cost-efficient or speedy. But that is not at all why Kirby’s putting a fleet of robots to work. In fact, the only reason he quit his stable job to start BMC was to help people: his wife, up-and-coming fashion designers, small businesses and front-line manufacturing workers. To be honest, what Kirby has created at his first BMC factory in Arizona – and what he’s planning to replicate through both retrofit and greenfield efforts around the world – is among the most innovative, yet simplest, approaches to automation I’ve ever seen.
In fact, when he and I sat down with my Zebra colleague Cody James to talk about what it has really been like to shake up a centuries-old industry in just a couple years’ time, I was shocked to learn:
how the idea for BMC unfolded
how much Kirby dug in to get this custom fashion model right, and
why he resisted the status quo to ensure his business was a lean, green, human-centric manufacturing machine.
So, tune into our 30-minute conversation now to hear Kirby diverge all the details surrounding the start of this state-of-the-art, on-demand apparel production operation, including…
How his curiosity about pajamas for his wife turned into such a blessing for millions (possibly billions) of people around the world.
The reason why AMRs are the natural way forward for manufacturing – especially if you care about people and this planet as much as the bottom line.
Why he ultimately paired fixed industrial scanning systems with robots (and people) to help ensure customers received a quality product, no matter what they were producing.
How his team has reinvented – and improved – the circular economy model within the fashion industry using a unique automation model compromised of robots and RFID (to the tune of a 70-80% reduction in pollution/waste).
Kirby also goes in-depth about why…
It’s important to know that lab-engineered technology solutions won’t always work right out of the box in the real world. (He also explains what to do when you realize things need to be tweaked, or that you forgot to consider something in the planning phases, and who to bring into the fold to both mitigate and address issues – based on personal experience, of course.)
You must treat business modernization – and manufacturing – as a team sport if you want to score a win. (And why both robots and retirees should be a part of your team.)
He always asks, “Is this scalable?” in both a retrofit and greenfield setting before committing to a technology platform, business process design or workflow model.
It’s so important that we all become more aware of where our clothes come from.
No” means “not yet,” and “not yet” means “yes” is coming…at least in his world.
Want a glimpse into BMC’s operation? Check this out:
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