The key message was that a host of new technologies and disruptions are coming at the sporting goods industry, and that businesses should not underestimate their impact. In other words, disrupt – don't be disrupted.

Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), automation, big data, digitalisation and on-demand manufacturing were among topics discussed. Much talk centred on the challenge of incorporating these into apparel and footwear manufacturing, given the flexible and unpredictable nature of the materials used, the vast range of styles and sizes, the lack of standardisation, and ever-faster product cycles.

Automated factory floors, and the use of real-time data to drive efficiency and responsiveness, sound great in theory – but are more difficult to put into practice.

Even Prof. Dr.-Ing. Sami Haddadin, director of the Institute of Automatic Control at Leibniz University Hannover, admitted that while robotic automation is moving towards flexible objects, clothing remains a major challenge.

Likewise Heinz Eisenbeiss, head of marketing factory automation at Siemens, demonstrated how the virtual and real production worlds can be linked by simulating machines and plants using ‘Digital Twins’ – but was unable to find an example to share from the world of sportswear.

One company whose vision is moving closer to reality is SoftWear Automation. Its 'Sewbot' driven worklines and workcells are designed to bring manufacturing closer to the consumer – what chairman and CEO Rajan Palaniswamy called 'SewLocal' – reducing production cycles to just a few days, as well as cutting shipping times, inventory, and carbon emissions. Its automated T-shirt line is set to go into production in 2019.

When it comes to using data to drive change, Professor Jay Lee from the University of Cincinnati explained it's all about collecting the right data, and asking the right questions of it. “Learning to differentiate between data mining and machine learned big data will be the way to figure the future," he said.

The impact of digitalisation on the apparel supply chain is top of mind for sourcing executives, according to Karl-Hendrik Magnus, partner at McKinsey & Company. Its latest survey found demand for shorter lead times and smaller order quantities is more likely to be met by digitalisation of the end-to-end creation and sourcing process than by shifting to lower cost countries. His advice? Start small, scale up, and collaborate.


Another potential disruptor is printed electronics, already found in smartphones, tablets and TV sets. Dr Klaus Hecker, managing director of the Organic Electronics Association, said sportswear opportunities will include smart textiles and clothing with integrated batteries, loudspeakers, lighting and sensors that can improve performance, injury prevention and recovery.

Consumer demand for personalisation is driving much of the disruption at retail, according to Kurt Cavano, president at GT Nexus. Another “tectonic shift" has seen companies like Uber, Facebook, Alibaba and Airbnb become market leaders without owning any of the assets they're selling. “What's coming together is cheap capital, 'Uberisation' (the sharing of stuff), technology; it's all merging to allow new companies to come along very quickly and disrupt the sleeping giants above them.”

Hosting the Forum’s Future Workshop, Cavano challenged delegates to come up with a disruptive idea. “It's a lot better to be disrupted by yourself than to be disrupted.”

Many of these platforms are also driving a new on-demand economy and increasing the complexity of workforce management, said Denis Pennel, CEO of the World Employment Confederation. Around 61% of workers worldwide already work in an informal way and only 26.4% have formal contracts. Implications include recruitment, data protection, health and safety, and how to give a voice to dispersed and independent workers.

“We are at an inflection point,” summarised moderator Edwin Keh, CEO at the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA). “Working harder at the same things we’re doing today isn’t going to make our businesses better or more profitable. Instead, we need to think about new opportunities.”


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