Dhaka, Saturday, 12 June 2021

Bangladesh RMG in Industry 4.0 Scenario

Bangladesh RMG in Industry 4.0 Scenario

Amit K. Biswas :Bangladeshhas achieved an economic miracle over the past three decades, but it cannot afford to rest on its laurels now. To develop a garment industry from scratch and become the world’s second largest exporter of apparel is an achievement we all can celebrate, of course. But some caution is in order as the nature of the challenge for Bangladesh is changing.

Up until this point, the focus has always been on growth and jobs and this has necessitated large and steadily increasing export volumes. We have been extremely successful with this policy, regularly achieving annual rates of economic growth of 6-7 percent. The Bangladeshi economy has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies in recent years, lauded by such institutions as the World Bank. The ready-made garment sector has been the main driver of this growth.
Is there is any need to continue expanding our RMG industry? Of course, it does, and the RMG export target of USD 50 billion is one we must continue to aspire to. Economic growth goes hand in hand with job creation, and our achievements so far have helped to lift millions of people out of poverty.

However, moving forward, more and more thought will need to be put into how we grow. The world of manufacturing is changing, and quite rapidly too. Many believe we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This era is likely to be marked by continued breakthroughs in emerging technologies in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, fifth-generation wireless technologies (5G) and 3D printing. But government’s policy support, creating skilled manpower and embracing global marketing trend are vital for the country’s export-oriented apparel sector.

Bangladesh is now getting a good number of technically educated individuals for the apparel sector, but they lack employability as they are not aware of the new technologies like automation and artificial intelligence. It is this pervasive ability of AI that makes it a technology that is “real” and not just some “science fiction” stuff. Artificial Intelligence is already a big part of how we live and how we work.
There are concerns that as AI technology advances, it will make most human-filled jobs obsolete and make millions jobless. These fears are not completely baseless. In the past, several reports from ILO and such organizations as well as top media outlets made headlines like, “Robots are coming for our jobs”, or “Automation will destroy jobs and we are not ready for it” etc.—which created alarm in the minds of most people.
While these are valid concerns, one needs to take a well-rounded view of the entire picture. There may be another side to the story which has yet to make headlines. A deeper understanding and analysis are needed before we jump to any “scary” conclusions. Any new technological advancement, while it renders some jobs redundant, also brings in its wake new jobs that did not exist before. The question is whether the creation of new jobs will match the vanishing of old jobs and at what rate the new jobs will be filled up by “newly acquired skill sets” or “talent”—or if we will be able to keep pace with the “skill gap” and “training” required to acquire new skills.
Before we go into that discussion, let’s first look at how AI is finding application in the apparel manufacturing world. Several functions and processes in textile and apparel industry make a strong case for AI application. AI’s powerful vision and image recognition system can easily help in identifying and grading textile fibers. Identification of fabric defects can be done much faster and more accurately using AI. In terms of the most important element of design “color”, AI can enable an accurate prediction of dye recipe,
process control during dyeing, automated dispensing of dyes and even in final color evaluation. When it comes to garment manufacturing, AI can enable accurate performance during cutting, spreading and sewing. CAD and patternmaking, production planning and control, shop floor control systems—all these can be performed at a much higher level of productivity and accuracy with AI technology.
On the buying side, AI can help predict trends and customer preferences. Many such applications are already in use by major online retailers. As you make a purchase on Amazon, it predicts and suggests products that you may be interested in buying based on data from your previous buying patterns, thus creating a personalized shopping experience. For merchandisers and product designers, AI helps to predict what is trending and what customer preferences are in terms of color, design, size, price points, etc.
There is undeniably a case for AI and its application in the apparel industry. There is also evidence that AI application and automation will make a lot of jobs done by humans redundant. Will the transformation to new technologies only take away jobs, and not create new ones?
Let’s take a closer look at what the data sources tell us. Recent reports from reputed consulting firms like Deloitte and Cognizant suggest that AI and automation will create many more new jobs that did not exist before. Cognizant goes on to predict 21 new job types that the new technology will bring forth. A Gartner report says that AI will generate 2.3 million jobs, exceeding the 1.8 million that it will remove.
AI needs humans to train it. Cobots and Robots will require humans to make sure that they work smoothly. Some of the new job titles that will emerge are likely to be “bot trainer”, “bot farmer”, “bot curator”. The low-level repetitive tasks will be done far more productively and accurately by AI and machines. Higher-order skill jobs will continue to be performed by humans.
Technology like AI and automation will augment human capability. It will not replace them. It will not compete with them. Rather, it will complement them. Jobs that machines will take over are those that are better performed by machines—precision, coordination, rate control, strength, repetitive tasks, scalable data processing, etc. Humans will still be needed to support the machines to do their jobs by performing the higher-order skilled tasks—problem solving, selective attention, critical thinking, handling ambiguity, judgment, empathy, etc.
In the context of apparel manufacturing, for example, the need to run the control software of the automation equipment and robotics can create more high-wage jobs compared with the existing low-wage manufacturing jobs. Hence, the workers can acquire these skills and earn high wages.
Newer skill-sets would need to be acquired to fulfill the roles in the new way of working in which AI and machines will be assisted by humans. There will be an increasing need for technicians, machinists, digital patternmakers, digital product simulation experts and machine and robot programmers, while the workforce will need to be equipped with new skills such as preventive maintenance of machines, technical troubleshooting and supervision of machines.
The need of the hour, therefore, is to relook at how we as an industry approach AI and automation. One view is to approach it from the negative side in terms of job loss, costs of automation and low-skilled labor cost advantage. The other view is to look at the positive side of embracing technology in terms of total value added to the end customer, redesigning the job roles and up skilling the existing workforce to take up higher-level roles and hence get high-paid jobs.
The world is moving towards further technological advancement and we need to keep in step with it. We should not approach digital technology as a threat but rather as an opportunity for progress and growth. The entire apparel industry of Bangladesh and the nation can move to the next level of prosperity if we rise to the occasion. Let’s not get stuck in the vicious cycle of being a nation known for “low-paid, low-skilled” work, but rather move up the value chain and provide higher value to the end customers and demand a high pay for a higher level of skills. Let’s work towards re-training our existing workforce for the future skills.
The apparel manufacturing scene across the world is being changed by new technologies, with production becoming more global, automated, highly-skilled, infused with technology and more integrated with services. Our whole RMG sector—particularly Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)—face real challenges if they are to adapt rather than be left behind.Sewbot technology is in its relative infancy but it is improving at a rapid rate, and more technology players are entering this space.
One challenge that SMEs in Bangladesh’s apparel sector face is that they lack access to specialized services such as technology advisory services, R&D providers, skilled training providers, industrial service providers, specialist consultants and so on. Even if skilled workers and new technology are available, SMEs often lack organizational practices essential for using these inputs effectively.
Another question that we need to ask is whether our workers are ready for the technology revolution we are set to see. Automation is coming, whether we like it or not, but are our 4 million garment workers ready for it? Do they have expertise in coding? Of course, they don’t—not yet. Therefore, government-led training and up skilling initiatives are an absolute must moving forward. The RMG industry needs to up skill, from the shop floor through to management and board level. On the training and development front, the industry faces a huge undertaking.
More and more of our businesses need to explore production opportunities with added value. This is vital in order for our products to remain relevant in a world where people can wear a jacket that will check their temperature or take their heartbeat. All of the above requires investment by apparel factories. Can they afford to do this? Many will mention the issue of pricing, suggesting that customers—brands—want digitization but aren’t yet paying for it in terms of price.
One would go along with that, albeit with the caveat that prices paid by the brands are something which we, as manufacturers, have very little control over. For now, we need to focus on the things we can change—up skilling our workforce, investing in new technology. If we do that collectively, as an industry, pricing issues will look after themselves. The future is in our own hands.