I had an interesting conversation with Anina Net, founder of 360Fashion Network. As one of the pioneers shaping this growing sub industry of fashion, I always enjoy listening to her experiences and talking freely about the goings on within the fashion tech space. During our recent tête á tête, she confided in me that she had figured out one of the biggest hurdles currently faced by brands, the mass production of their fashion tech prototype.
We all know that this is an expensive problem, that no one is immune to. The reality is that many startups who try to mass produce their prototype either end up with a very expensive product that no one can afford or they simply fail to make it happen. Anina believes that those two outcomes do not have to be the case. She herself has successfully taken not just a product, but products to market.
Recently she mass produced a load of smart gloves in two weeks with the V1 of PCB. Collaborating with Intel, Anina’s smart glove was developed to simultaneously create a human light pattern controlled by gesture recognition. Impressed by her ability to do something that has the reputation of having a minefield of problems, I asked Anina to share, in her own words, her top 10 tips in mass manufacturing a prototype.
(1) Trust yourself. If you think it will fail and imagine weakness, believe me, it will indeed fail. Do not listen to the manufacturing factory people if you know in your heart that what you believe is true. I had the factory designers, the director, everyone telling me “No no, that won’t happen and we don’t need to strengthen there. It’s overkill.” And then it all came to pass as I imagined. I prepared a backup prototype that saved the day (this was in the dance performance case).
“Do not listen to the manufacturing factory people if you know in your heart that what you believe is true.”
(2) Go to the factory and stay there until you come out with a prototype that is perfect. Have all your measurements already on a paper with a sketch of the item you want to make “technical drawing”. I thought that sending someone there and having a list was enough for that person to come back with the first prototype. I wasted a week explaining over and over to them what we agreed and how to make it.
I finally took a plane, stayed there 3 days. The result was that I came out with a glove that we both agreed on. The point I am trying to make is that when I tried to remote control the prototype it totally did not work. I could not understand why they could not make it the way I wanted until I went to the factory to see exactly where and how they were working.
“When I tried to remote control the prototype it totally did not work.”
(3) Get all the changes documented with photos, and make technical drawings of the changes, along with the final item and the written list of the changes that you both initial and sign the paper agreeing to. This way, if there is a misunderstanding you can both refer to the paper with the exact measurements on it and you can measure the prototype so you can compare the measurement numbers you both originally agreed on
“Get all the changes documented with photos, and make technical drawings of the changes.”
(4) Do not give up and do not let them give up. At one point we had made 40 prototypes and the factory was going to give up on me because they became so discouraged that they could not meet my standard of quality and precision. I had to speak very kindly to them and agree on how many more final’s we would make and so I had to be more precise in everything because I agreed to only x number of changes more. You are in a long term partnership, you have to give and take and understand their side also with material costs etc.
“Do not give up and do not let them give up.”
(5) Make friends with the factory workers and get your hands dirty. Your relationship will be a long term one if your product is doing well so it makes sense to make this a partnership rather than just a single order. I sat down with the line person for every step, and made a few samples with them. In the larger factory I smiled at the people and went around the room checking what they were currently making and smiling at them to show my friendliness and appreciation.
“Make friends with the factory workers and get your hands dirty.”
(6) When you cannot find a factory, setup up an assembly line yourself in a big space. A factory, from what I can tell, is a collection of people with a certain set of skills. They are the manpower you need. They are ready and available to help you to make your creation come to life. In my experience, I have had to set up my own production line to make items. The only people available were totally random people who agreed to be paid to do the tasks that as I instructed.
“When you cannot find a factory, setup up an assembly line yourself in a big space.”
(7) If you can stay until completion, make sure you do. It is better that you oversee the mass manufacturing process. Whenever I have the time, I stay in the factory until the product was completed. I will tell you why: Because receiving a shipment of 200 PLUS duplicates of each item, you need to know if they work. So you must take the product one by one out of the package and test each one yourself. If you accept the package, the factory’s responsibility ends there with FOB. When I set up our own production line, I walked around and I kept showing and telling them how I wanted it done, because how they imagine to sew stitches or make things, was different. I would ask them to take it out and show them how to do it myself.
“If you can stay until completion, make sure you do.”
(8) The factory workers’ happiness is your key to get great products. I had more loyal workers willing to do their utmost to make everything correctly. I brought them snacks and water and played music – joked with them occasionally. I pushed them very hard time wise, but I did not totally push them to the point of making mistakes. Later we had workers who even gave up their holidays and the chance to go to home to their families so we could complete the project.
No matter, if you make the prototype with the line person, head designer, or directly with a workers, please remember they are people and the more you show them and treat them as people, and treat them well, they will want to do their best to make it how you would like. You will have fewer returns, a more durable product, and a flexible partner with whom if there are mistakes you can agree to correct them quickly.
“Remember they are people and the more you show them and treat them as people, they will do their best for you.”
(9) Pay them a fair wage. Pay a fair wage for the work that they are doing. It is good to take note that the factory managers and owners will not try to cut corners as much with you if you pay them a fair wage.
“Pay a fair wage for the work that they are doing.”
(10) Bring all your materials yourself. From tread, to fabric, to buttons – bring everything you want in your product. If you leave it up to the factory to do the sourcing, you may end up with some surprises. Later, when you have a trusted relationship you can inspect the materials that they find and decide if the replacements they find are up to your satisfaction, but controlling your material suppliers is really the only way you will know what goes into your products. If you do not know where to source them, then if the factory does it, inspect it and make a sample with their materials to test the durability. Remember, to source all your materials, you need time.
Sharing 10 tips with us wasn’t enough, on a roll Anina shared one more lesson, “If you are in a rush, you get what is available. In the first version of the glove, we had only two weeks left to manufacture. I had to accept what was available in the time that we had and modify my design accordingly to make it stronger where possible”. Challenging the belief that manufacturing is a hard problem to solve, Anina, who is at the moment mass producing a limited collection of wearables, has had her fair amount of hurdles but her point is that she learnt those lessons on the job. The challenges she faced whilst figuring out this Rubik’s cube of mass manufacturing problems have made her confident enough to want to share what she has learnt so far, and we advise you to take heed.
Founding editor-in-chief of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta is currently one of the leading influencers writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology. She has also given talks at Premiere Vision, Munich Fabric Start and Pure London, to name a few. Besides working as a fashion innovation consultant for various fashion companies like LVMH Atelier, Muchaneta has also contributed to Vogue Business, is a senior contributor at The Interline and an associate lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL.