Where We Go From Here | An Advancements Conference Recap

Each month, Behind the Seams explores a different aspect of the sewn products industry with an editorial/introduction from the SPESA team called SPESA Speaks (which is only slightly confusing that it's also the name of our blog). This is the September 2021 SPESA Speaks.


Last week, SPESA hosted its 10th Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. This was the first time SPESA had gathered for an in-person event since February 2020, and after 18 months apart, it felt good to reunite with familiar faces.

The Advancements Conference has always been different than others we lead. But this year, it felt even more unique. It was not only SPESA’s relaunch into in-person events, it also served as a reminder that the sewn products industry thrives in an environment where people work and learn together. We experienced this renewed energy not only during the Advancements Conference, but also on the Techtextil North America show floor (which was held concurrently at the Raleigh Convention Center).

SPESA Chairwoman Nina McCormack summed up the experience nicely: “A lot of us were ready to see each other again and go back to face-to-face meetings. Yesterday, when I arrived, I stood for a few minutes to look over the [Techtextil North America] show floor and said to myself ‘yes, this is really happening’.”

Because this was the first time SPESA hosted an in-person event in so long, and because the event took place at such a crucial time for the industry amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it was important that the format of the Advancements Conference be designed in a way that was both informative and engaging. A lot was covered and discussed during the one-day event, but a few themes seemed to stick. We’ve compiled some notes and quotes and outlined our three key takeaways below.

1 | The Industry Is Evolving Faster Than It Ever Has Before

We talk all day about how fast the sewn products industry is changing. One thing though is certain: the Covid-19 pandemic catapulted the industry into a new chapter. The rush to produce personal protective equipment, paired with new consumer demands required an industry that had the capabilities to evolve and innovate quickly. And so it did.

There was a renewed emphasis on automation. There was more interest in digital tools. Sustainability was more important than ever before. And data-driven operations were crucial when it came to supporting well-functioning supply chains. The importance of data as a tool for benchmarking successes and mitigating risks was referenced multiple times during the conference. For the speakers, data isn’t just a means to gather insight, but the key needed for a transparent workflow.

Conversations on industry evolution also revolved around adaptability. An entire panel was dedicated to discussing the importance of operating a flexible factory floor. Brands today are looking for manufacturers with the capability to adapt and mobilize quickly to meet consumer demands.

As automation, digitization, and flexible manufacturing were discussed throughout the day, one point stuck: the sewn products industry is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

2 | The Industry Cannot Move Forward Without a Dedicated Workforce

This topic is something we cover often including in this month's issues of Behind the Seams. And we will likely continue to do so over the next several years as we watch a generational shift take place, with older industry professionals retiring and newcomers filing their places. What makes the topic of workforce development so critical is that the rate of retirement is outpacing the rate of recruitment. And at a time when the industry is moving faster than ever (as we referenced above), something needs to be done to bring in the right minds and the right talent to fill the voids.

We know that there is a need for workforce development in the sewn products industry. The question though is how can we recruit and retain a younger generation that has been taught to snub careers in manufacturing. A great deal of discussion took place, especially during the last panel, about looking ahead, designing roadmaps for a prospective workforce, and promoting careers in manufacturing as ones that rely on a combination of technical expertise and craftsmanship.

3 | The Industry Works Best When It Works Together

Synergy is often reserved for corporate lingo, but plays a crucial role in the future of the sewn products industry. Just as we saw Covid-19 accelerate the sewn product industry’s acceptance of new technologies, we also saw the industry turn inward for support. Companies began working together to pivot production lines, seek information from partner organizations, and lift each other up during a time when everyone needed it.

In addition to seeking support from others in the industry, there was also a reexamination of internal processes. Fragmented supply chains were mended with the help of better communication tools and a broader understanding of each person (e.g. suppliers, manufacturers, contractors, etc.) and each person's role within the process. The better the communication, the more transparency there was, and the more transparency there was, the easier it was to analyze and measure success. Which brings us back to our first theme on industry evolution and data collection. Don't you just love a full circle?

We're at a crossroads right now. There is an opportunity to push the needle and continue to drive change in the industry. The industry rebounded (and some may argue that it thrived) during the Covid-19 pandemic. The question will be how it addresses and navigates challenges that are present (like workforce development), as well as challenges on the horizon.