Automation is beginning to help the American textile and apparels industry - a $100 billion sector employing 2.6 million people - cope with foreign competition. From the late 1970s through 1986, the United States textile industry will have averaged $1.5 billion a year in outlays to automate. Last year, $2.3 billion went for that item.
But ``promises about competitiveness have not worked out in textiles,'' a textile trade negotiator says. And this is not especially due to productivity, in which US producers score high.
Ironically, the first wave of automation brought its own set of problems by failing to accommodate shorter production runs. For example, fabric rolls were no longer cut at the 100-yard mark. Rolls were cut at 3,000 yards and above, causing many customers to shop overseas.
Even with robotics, says Fred Shippee with the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, special problems have arisen. Materials in apparel production, for instance, are limp and do not respond as well to robot control as materials such as metals.
But industry observers say manufacturers found that success in fashion relied on obtaining better data. Consumer tastes, retailers' demands, quantities of shipments in the works, and other factors are becoming part of an information exchange.
The new drive began with voluntary moves by apparel leaders. Gary Swank, a vice-president at the Texas-based Hager Company, recalls that coordination among all players in the garments game was needed.
``We had to bring in retailers and textilemakers as well as our own people,'' he says. The effort was called ``Quick Response,'' underscoring the need to obtain information rapidly -- and act upon it.
It takes more than 12 months to get a polyester garment from initial stages in the chain to its final destination: the consumer. Also, mistakes in ordering bear high costs on suppliers.
Computers enable assembly, ordering, and other components to ``communicate'' without human beings or the postal system. Better information has shortened that year-long period to 24 weeks, and a company can know where parts are at each stage.
Irwin Bernstein, a vice-president for planning at Maidenform, thinks it is appropriate that ``Quick Response'' placed emphasis on inventories. ``Order processing alone is an area where we save two or three days by using electronic mail. You can reorder faster, and computers are accurate.''
From transportation through production, apparels and raw materials are monitored. Little wastage occurs. There is the capability to customize for specialty orders. The system identifies consumer demand and helps retailers by freeing their hands.
Peter Harding, a textiles expert with Kurt Simon Associates in New York, feels this consumer-based marketing strategy brings about ``fundamental revisions'' in the whole apparel manufacturing process. ``Each level of the chain cooperates, they see partnerships'' as essential ``until the final stage.'' That stage is consumer purchase.
Major retailers such as K mart accepted the apparel standards, and the National Retail Merchants Association looks favorably upon the development. Further standardization will ensure customized programming for retailers. ``Electronic data interchanges,'' says Mr. Bernstein, ``apply in the whole manufacturing time cycle and in mechanized transport on the production line.''
Ultra-customization and instantaneous production of individual garments is likely in years ahead. For now, the industry appears confident it can save billions and give grace time to US manufacturers.