By Devin Steele
This article was written by Devin Steele and published by eTextileCommunications December 2, 2021.
BOSTON – As we continue to move past COVID-19, “Riding the Momentum” was an apropos theme for the Sewn Products Equipment & Suppliers of the Americas (SPESA) annual Executive Conference, which took place last month in Boston, Mass.
Meeting for only the second time in person in two years – the first being at its Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference in Raleigh, N.C., in August – the organization brought in more than 20 speakers to review lessons learned from the pandemic and provide perspectives on where the sewn products, textile and apparel industry goes next.
“We have a very dynamic and changing industry right now, and it’s exciting to have one of the oldest industries in the world going through such changes,” said Michael McDonald, SPESA president, in kicking off the event. “A lot of people have used this phrase: ‘The pandemic wasn't an innovator or a disruptor – it was an accelerator.’ The pandemic didn't create any new problems that our industry solved – it just exposed them, and it accelerated their impact.”
He added: “We learned, we adapted, we changed. And we have to make sure that we build on that momentum. We can't go back to business as usual – there is no business as usual after this pandemic. So we have the opportunity to learn so much from what happened, as an industry, to build and become stronger, especially in the Americas.”
Chairman’s Address, Elections
SPESA Chairwoman Nina McCormack, vice president & CFO at DAP America, held the gavel for the last time after moving into the role in 2018.
“Over the past three years that I have been chairwoman of SPESA, the industry certainly has gone through a lot of changes in reestablishing itself,” she said in her Chairwomen’s Address, during which time she reviewed the association’s accomplishments and activities. “The industry is riding the momentum and we are just at the beginning. The future holds so much more. It is such an interesting and exciting time to be in the sewn products industry in the Americas.”
During the event, SPESA announced new officers and board members. Ed Gribbin, CEO of Gribbin Strategic, was elected chairman of the Board; Mark Hatton, managing director of Threads Americas at American & Efird, was elected vice chairman; and Daniella Ambrogi, global marketing director of CGS, was voted in as secretary/treasurer.
SPESA membership voted to approve the following candidates for the SPESA Board of Directors Class of 2024:
Jill Coleman, Alvanon, Inc.
Mike Fralix, [TC]²
Mark Hatton, American & Efird, Inc.
Frank Henderson, Henderson Sewing Machine Co., Inc.
Rick Ludolph, Productive Solutions
Michael Rabin, Morgan Tecnica America, Inc.
Charlie Merrow, CEO of the Merrow Group of Companies, also joined the SPESA Board of Directors, filling Lonny Schwartz’s vacated seat in the Class of 2022. The meeting closed with a “State of SPESA” address from McDonald, a video tribute to McCormack for her years of service as a SPESA officer and remarks from Gribbin.
'Innovate or Die'
Gathering in the Northeast in general and Massachusetts in particular enabled SPESA to attract a number of local thought leaders in a hub of manufacturing, research and education. And takeaways after two jam-packed days of discussions were enough for attendees to fill the Boston Harbor. Topics ranged from technology & research to reshoring & nearshoring to collaboration to workforce recruiting & development to innovation techniques to trade & policy to military procurement to mergers & acquisitions.
Bill O’Connor, founding partner of Agents of Innovation, teed up those topics with an engaging, hour-long keynote around the concept of “innovate or die,” explaining how technology startups and giants of Silicon Valley actually make innovation happen in the real world.
“This is tautological to me,” he said. “I've studied innovation going back 3.5 million years through the Innovation Genome Project, and I can state with absolute certainty that right now, today, the human race has never faced so many disruptive, emerging technologies – not even close. So ‘innovate or die’ was always kind of true but, man, it is truer now because of the brilliant machines that we have and what’s coming.”
He also explored the dynamics of automation/augmentation in the context of the future of work, noting that, “Robotics should augment our work. not automate it. Automation and augmentation are predicated on upskilling and training.”
The pandemic and now supply chain issues raised greater awareness of the need for regionalized or hemispheric strategies, and that subject became something of a sub-theme for the event. During a panel session dubbed, “Made in New England Manufacturing,” moderator Matthew Wallace, CEO of DXM, Inc., asked panelists if onshoring or near-shoring is really happening, then posited that he likes the term “new-shoring” better because “I don't think you can do the things you did 20 years ago and do it here again the same way. It doesn't work.”
“It’s not happening as quickly as we'd like it to be,” said Kevin McCoy, vice president of Made-Manufacturing, Engineering, R&D, Product and Innovation at Boston-based New Balance, the made-in-USA shoe and sneaker maker. “There are portions and segments of our supply base that makes it hard and expensive, and there's workforce training that is going to be very difficult to realize.”
McCoy also cautioned: “The pandemic has created a fantastic opportunity to reshore/near-shore, but what I'm afraid of, with Vietnam starting to open up and with China returning to normal, is that window is closing, and people are going to forget about what's happening. So the time to act is now.”
Merrow of The Merrow Group of Companies, Fall River, Mass., added that building large manufacturing programs in the U.S. requires scale and continuity, and he has not seen that, even as we emerge from the pandemic and are embroiled in a shipping crisis.
“It does say a lot that even the supply crisis, with more than 100 ships off the coast of California, hasn't created significant change,” said Merrow, whose company – primarily a textile and apparel maker – received much regional and national press after transitioning its operations to produce millions of units of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during COVID.
The big story, he continued, is that “as long as containers don’t get unloaded, we're pretending that there is going to be a significant onshoring event. There's a lot of rhetoric around it, but not a lot of action. We should be really careful of this. This is why, if our focus isn't on building innovative products around unique business models – not just production methods – I think we're going to have a difficult time seeing scaled manufacturing reoccur here.”
However, he later added optimistically, “The innovation we have in the U.S. will fuel investment behind reshoring and verticality.”
Later, Merrow posited that a vertical supply chain has an important value in development and design.
“This jacket I'm wearing is a material that we developed in North Carolinas that becomes more hydrophobic the more you wash it, without having a lot of chemical treatments,” he said. “You can't do that if you don't have places to develop fabric. To scale production in the United States, we need to innovate, we need to build things that we can protect, and that will fuel investment behind that verticality. Chicken and egg? I think that the design and development of business models in the space that create more compelling reasons to scale is another place that we need to be working.”
Meanwhile, panelist Brenna N. Schneider, founder & CEO of Lawrence, Mass.-based 99Degrees, a manufacturer of technical performance activewear, added that demand is key. “With consistent, scalable demand comes a more vertical supply chain, and there are more opportunities in this sector in the Western Hemisphere. Demand has to come first, and from my perspective, we are seeing it. We have turned down significant work this year and are expanding because we can't keep up with demand,” she said, adding that she has no trouble finding operators for her 375-employee operation – a rarity to many in this and many other industries.
Schneider said the shipping crisis is a short-term problem, and the real risk brands have is selling direct to consumers. “They don't have the risks of meeting the orders from a large retailer, they have the risk of meeting the order of each individual person – by color, by size, by style,” she said. “Preventing overproduction is significant. Brands that I'm talking to are seeing how to build the right development process, supply chain and sourcing so that they can do this model. You need a different approach to development and design at a brand level. Global brands have a hard time with that. But I'm seeing change in real, tangible projects that are scalable.”
Related to reshoring, Walmart is a major player in bringing more production to the U.S. through its American Lighthouses Initiative, announced earlier this year. The global retailer said it will spend $350 billion on American-made products over 10 years, supporting 750,000 new American jobs and eliminating an estimated 100 million tons of CO2 emissions.
At this event Ashish Bharara, lead of Supply Chain Resilience at Walmart, presented virtually and advised that textiles will be the initial area of focus, and will expand to include metals and motors, food processing, plastics, pharmaceutical and medical supplies.
“We will follow an incremental and iterative approach for Textile Lighthouses,” he said, adding that for American manufacturing to be scalable and sustainable, Walmart needs to partner with a broader group of stakeholders and is deeply engaged with textile makers. “We want to use our influence to be a convener to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.”
Some of the major barriers needing resolutions, Bharara said, is accessing skilled labor, financing, raw materials and components, as well as trade policy and regulations. “We need to work locally in a specific place to incubate and then scale,” he said. “American Lighthouses will look to establish a ‘supply chain in a location.’ ”
Talking, Tackling Other Issues
During another panel on Textile Research and Innovation, Arnie Kravitz, chief technology officer at Pittsburgh, PA-based Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM), indicated that ARM is a public-private partnership that is sponsored by the Department of Defense. ARM aims to invigorate the U.S. industrial base through the application of robotics, including robots that are enhanced with Artificial Intelligence (AI), he said.
“We're very interested in the textile industry, and we've invested significantly in the development of robots to be used for textiles, mostly in assembly,” he said. “We've built a great relationship with this community and we're looking forward to moving ahead in the future. We want to see the technology we've invested help to reshore investment into the United States.”
Later, a case study session on workforce training highlighted ways to create lasting infrastructure for the textile and apparel industry. Speakers included Ambrogi, global marketing director of the BlueCherry® division at CGS, and Sarah Krasley, founder & CEO of Shimmy Technologies, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based B2B SaaS fashion tech company preparing the apparel industry for the future of work by developing design, data management and workforce development tools.
Ambrogi noted that CGS believes the factory is at the center of the supply chain, and that BlueCherry®, the widely deployed and feature-rich apparel ERP solution, measures the productivity of the factory floor. “We have about 200,000 terminals installed all over the world, and one very important point of the shopfloor control solution is empowering the sewer/operator. Through our solution, they come in every day and are able to measure their productivity. They have full visibility.”
Through this technology, she added that that visibility allows brands and retailers to have hold their partners accountable for their manufacturing practices. “Whether it's Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 or Tier 4, everything can be monitored. One of the things we strive in doing, and we do it really well, is connecting the data between all the processes in the supply chain. So you connect the shopfloor control to your enterprise solution, to your PLM and even your ecommerce so you have the data that is necessary to the success of our industry.”
Shimmy Technologies, a CGS customer, is able to see metrics through BlueCherry® that enable the operator to become more efficient and productive, Krasley said. “That's the value proposition that we sell into factories and brands who have us go to multiple factories in their supply chain. So the fact that they’re collecting that data, we can intervene. Maybe that operator is struggling with efficiency, but we can help upskill them, help them better utilize their time and skills and measure very easily what has changed.”
Ambrogi pointed out that the operator is a crucial part of the supply chain, though for a long time that person was put on the backburner. “We believe that by empowering the sewing operator, we can change that. They are now aware of what they're doing, and they can use the terminals to train on a new style, for example. When employees are empowered, they can see a path to the future. It's really hard to find people, especially for sewing facilities.”
She continued: “So if we don't take care of this problem right now, it's going to be very hard to bring more manufacturing to back. Operators can see the results of what they're doing at their fingertips. Everything is automated, and their time is more valued. Technology is an enabler.”
“Yes, it's a form of respect,” Krasley chimed in.
Joining virtually, Bert Feinberg of Frontier Distributors/Phillocraft also took part in one of the case study discussions. He spoke to recommendations he had heard for employee engagement during SPESA’s Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference in Raleigh in August – recommendations that he had taken back to Texas and implemented in his company.
On the topic of workforce recruiting and retention, Merrow, in the earlier panel, said: "We adopt a highly iterative, very high tolerance to risk program at Merrow. We are really demanding of people, and we expect them to move quickly and to fail and then to get to a place of success. I came from Silicon Valley into textiles, and that's how we approach it. But I think the most important thing is, if we don't have better business models, if we don't build better products, if we don't create a more exciting – and by ‘exciting,’ I mean profitable and growth-oriented business within this industry – we won't attract people. They're attracted to commercial opportunity. That's something we can all work on together."
During that session, McCoy said that operating under a (mostly) made-in-America model is difficult, and finding the right talent is crucial to that mission.
“To say that we're going to build a program and we're going to turn a shoe around in three days and do all of these wonderful things, and then have to deliver on that, it's hard,” he said. “We have been in business for more than 100 years old. The current owner purchased it in 1972 and has made a commitment to manufacturing some portion of our product here. I meet with him regularly and it's one of the most important topics that he talks about. He puts what we produce here over what we produce overseas.
“So having that dogged determination, there's a romance about this industry that has been lost,” he continued. “We have three facilities in Maine. There are about 1,100 manufacturing folks who work between Maine and Massachusetts. We make the coolest shoes on the planet, and we're able to talk to these kids who see these things on Instagram. And we tell them, ‘you can be part of that.’ They want to work with their hands, they want to build stuff. We can give them a really nice wage, a way to move forward and provide for their family and it stabilizes that workforce.”
Other topics covered during the two-day event – which was chock full of networking activities in the evenings – included research and innovation, business goal setting, government engagement, trade matters, mergers & acquisitions and more.
A panel title, “Wicked Smart: Textile Research and Innovation,” featured Kravitz of ARM; Cheryl Gomes, technical program manager at University of Massachusetts Lowell Department of Industry Partnerships and Economic Development; Katya Roelse, instructor, Fashion and Apparel Program, University of Delaware; and moderator Lloyd Wood, president of the Lloyd Wood Group.
Jeremy Wall, co-founder & CEO of GoalMakers, Raleigh, N.C., led an interactive session on a few of the fundamentals of business management. The session included setting and implementing goals for companies and engaging employees.
A trade and government policy session, “Why Am I Still Paying Tariffs,” included speakers Nicole Bivens Collinson, president, International Trade & Government Relations, Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A.; and David Trumbull, principal, Agathon Associates.
Government Engagement and military procurement was covered by Kelly Floyd, industrial specialist, DLA Troop Support Clothing and Textiles, and Steve Lamar, president & CEO, American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).
And a session moderated by Mike Fralix, president & CEO of [TC]2, reviewed recent mergers and acquisitions. Speakers included Ketty Pillet, vice president of Marketing, Americas, Lectra which acquired Gerber Technology this year; and Lonny Schwartz, consultant and former president of Superior Sewing Machine & Supply, LLC, which was recently purchased by Merrow Group of Companies.