Laser-Worn Levi's Are the Start of Something Big

Bloomberg Opinion , March 02, 2018

The jeans are brand new and uniformly dark blue. To eyes accustomed to fashionably distressed denim, they look stiff and cheap, like off-brand items from a 1970s discount store. Then a technician mounts the legs on V-shaped supports, taps a few touchscreen menus, and hits a button. A laser begins working its way down the pants, trailing a puff of blue smoke. In less than a minute the too-blue fabric has taken on the whiskered and faded look of well-worn jeans, broken-in and beloved. It’s high-tech magic.

Levi Strauss drew great press attention for its plans to completely replace hand labor with lasers to distress its jeans. The announcement marks yet another step in the computer-driven transformation of apparel manufacturing from a labor-intensive industry to a capital-intensive one.

The system itself isn’t new. Jeanologia, the Spanish company whose machines do the work, has been around since 1994. Along with Levi’s, its roster of clients includes such brands as Polo Jeans, Hilfiger Denim and Abercrombie & Fitch.

“This is the bottleneck of any [jeans] company,” Rolando Sierra, Jeanologia’s Mexico area director, explained at the 2016 TexProcess Americas trade show, where I saw the system demonstrated. “Imagine managing 300 to 400 people who do nothing for eight to 10 hours but to load a mannequin and then with sandpaper on their hands to begin the destruction process to remove the indigo.”

Integrating computer-aided design systems and automated manufacturing offers apparel makers more than the obvious savings on labor costs, however.

1) It cuts turnaround time and reduces unsold inventories. Levi’s developed new software that lets designers digitally prototype new styles and send their files directly to vendors. Combined with the laser distressing, the system cuts design and development time in half. Levi’s increased automation “allows us to shift to a make-what-you-sell model,” Bart Sights, the company’s vice president of technical innovation, told Fortune. “Instead of making a bunch of stuff months and years in advance and trying to sell it, we’re able to see what’s selling and make accordingly.”

2) It’s more precise. Computers are more exact than even seasoned craftsmen. As with the sewing robots I’ve previously written about, Jeanologia’s system offers greater control over exactly how jeans come out. “What you see is what you get,” it boasts. This precision not only improves quality control but enables new forms of design innovation. VF Corp.’s Lee Jeans worked with Jeanologia’s system to produce a new line of “optical designs” that subtly change the shading of jeans to create more flattering lines, much the way contouring makeup works. “Lasers have long been used to create worn-effects on denim and this is basically doing the opposite, by using the light in order to enhance the wearer,” Jeanologia said of Lee’s Body Optix line.

3) It’s more adaptable. By reducing setup costs, CAD-driven manufacturing systems offer the promise of efficient short-run production, including customization. Knitwear is far ahead of sewn products here, thanks largely to Shima Seiki’s computerized knitting machines. Quickly changing finishes, whether with digital printing or Jeanologica’s laser systems, offers a way to adapt tailored garments. At the 2016 Super Bowl, for instance, Levi’s partnered with Jeanologia to offer fans personalized denim.

4) It responds to public concerns about labor conditions and environmental impacts. Although major brands have cleaned up the worst conditions, distressing jeans is difficult, unpleasant work. Machines may lack the personal touch of hand craft, but they also don’t get repetitive motion injuries. And their precision can reduce environmental waste. Jeanologia’s marketing emphasizes the savings on water, and Levi’s told the Wall Street Journal that its new process will cut the number of chemicals it uses to produce jeans from 1,000 to “a few dozen.”

If these trends continue, within a decade or two we’re likely to see most apparel manufacturing return to high-wage countries -- with less waste, more resilience, and many fewer employees.