The high-tech future of fashion manufacturing

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The fashion industry is surprisingly old-fashioned. For decades, it has relied on cheap, manual labor to do just about every job. But it’s entering a period of radical change, when future-minded brands are turning to technology to drastically speed up how they make clothes.

Levi’s has started rolling out lasers to its supplier factories that do the work of distressing jeans from start to finish in under two minutes, a job that has previously required lots of time, effort, and human hands. Big brands from Uniqlo to small labels like Ministry of Supply are working with 3D-knitting machines that can produce a complete sweater practically on demand, without any seams or sewing required. Zozo, Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce company, is turning our smartphones into measuring devices, making it possible to get t-shirts, jeans, and other items custom-made, faster and cheaper, on a mass scale.

The change isn’t coming out of nowhere. The industry is trying desperately to keep up with the world around it. Social media has meant that shoppers see every trend the moment it appears, and move on faster than ever. Fast fashion and e-commerce have trained us to expect instantaneous access to everything, while younger generations are increasingly demanding that they be able to tailor products to their preferences.

Much of the industry is still out-of-step with this reality, producing giant piles of inventory months in advance without knowing for certain what will even sell. The brands that are faster and more responsive to the market are winning in this environment, which is why the most ambitious companies are using high-tech solutions to speed up and give customers exactly what they want.

Why, then, haven’t we just automated clothes manufacturing? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. Robots still have a surprisingly hard time handling flimsy, stretchy fabric. But there are ideas on how to solve that issue too, and even the concept of a fully automated fashion production line is looking more realistic than ever.

Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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