Additive manufacturing may cause harm in the fashion industry, study finds

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

Introducing 3D printing technology in the clothes manufacturing industry will reinforce, not change, current power dynamics weighted in favour of retailers, research from ESCP Business School reveals.

Professor Christian Durach, chair of supply chain and operations management at ESCP’s Berlin campus, and PhD candidate Marlene Hohn report that retailers will likely react to increased production speeds and higher market competition by decreasing purchasing prices and the duration of fashion trends.

Retailers are expected to use the increased production speed and heightened market competition to enforce faster fashion cycles and lower purchasing prices, providing a grim outlook for future working conditions at the production stage. The study also finds that new digital technologies may, in fact, amplify rather than improve existing social sustainability issues in contemporary production systems.

According to the researchers, 3D printing could be implemented in a complementary capacity, improving the efficiency of certain existing manufacturing processes, for example, prototyping.

However, it could also be used as a standalone production method, with production operations being developed based solely on the new technology and requiring minimal manual labour, the authors say.

If new standalone production operations are introduced, the researchers believe that new supply chains will be based on similar governance structures to those currently in use.

This means they will continue to face social sustainability issues such as making production workers stay for unpaid overtime, the authors say.

“Our findings reveal little hope for social sustainability improvements, as suppliers will likely be increasingly trapped in supply chain structures, resulting in worsening working conditions in current producer countries. If new production operations are created, experts remain skeptical about who would reap the potential benefits,” Durach said.

The authors said they hoped the study would “enrich the discussion about the potential use of AM beyond operational viability to include considerations on the wider implications for supply chains and the prevailing working conditions within them.”

The research was based on two Delphi studies, rounds of surveys with recognized experts in the field of clothing mass production in order to obtain informed predictions, and was published in the International Journal of Operations & Production Management.