In the future, retail will be boiled down to design. Shipping will be nearly eliminated. Wait times will be nil. Items will fit each customer’s body. How is all this possible? And could the first advances come through socks?
Veronika Harbick and her husband Michael Carlson started Thursday Finest, a clothing company last year that sold ties. This month, socks joined the roster. What makes their products different is that they use a 3D-printing knitting machine to make them. The 3D knitting machine, a sibling to 3D printers, is able to read the specs of a design file and knit a product accordingly. A small product, like socks or ties, can be completed quickly.
“Unlike 3D printing, where it can take hours to make something, with the yarn we’ve got it only takes a few minutes,” said Harbick, in an interview with Technical.ly Brooklyn.
The pair have what they call a microfactory in Bushwick, off the Jefferson stop, where they run the business. On the Thursday Finest website, users can input their shoe size and pick colors and styles for their socks. Orders come in, they make the socks and they ship them out.
This alone sounds like a good enough business. Customers are able to get socks that won’t flop around at the toe or pull up on the heel. At $18 a pair, they’re between J.Crew and Brooks Brothers in price.
But there’s something even more exciting about what Thursday Finest is doing, which is that they’re working on partnerships with retail stores across the country to set up connected 3D knitters in the store. What that would mean is that someone in San Francisco could order a pair of socks, but instead of waiting for the socks to be made in Brooklyn and shipped across the country, the socks could be made in the back room of the partner store San Francisco and picked up there.
“If you have a microfactory you don’t have to ship it across the country,” Harbick said. “We’ve been in talks with department stores and specialty retailers. I think everyone is excited about that element. It is really magical when you can see this thing made right in front of you with this crazy-looking knitting robot.”
This represents a sort of sea change in logistics. Instead of shipping raw materials from their origin to a factory to the customer, they would now need only to be shipped raw to the end location. Instead of needing a huge warehouse for supplies, retailers could keep small amounts they need for their geographic location. That adds up to a lot of saved money in real estate and shipping, not to mention a good amount of saved carbon from yarn not going back and forth across the globe.
It also would reframe what we’re buying when buying a product.
If the manufacturing is done on site according to a file, then the real value add on top of cost of materials and overhead is a design file. This is perhaps true now. The price of goods from clothing brands comes from materials that cost the same regardless of the company, with labor costs that probably vary somewhat but are comparable, with shipping costs that, as long as the company is shipping in quantity, probably don’t vary widely. So the difference between the price of products comes down to plenty of variables, but big among them is design and brand name. Still, it’s different conceptualizing all those variables when looking at a finished product than it would be to see a machine print out a pair of socks from yarn fed into the machine. It would become much clearer that way that you’re paying for the design.
So far all this is in theory. Right now you can order custom socks and ties online and have them shipped to you, with a pretty normal internet retailer supply chain. But the potential there is huge.
“We’re so excited to launch socks, it’s something we’ve been working to for awhile,” Harbick said. “We’ll do other options for the fall and start launching other accessories in the fall as well.”-30-
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