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Flat Knitting

In-house manufacturing for Uniqlo’s made-in-Tokyo line

The new ‘global mother factory for 3D knits’ near Uniqlo’s headquarters in Tokyo, enables the fast-fashion company to move even faster.

21st July 2021

Knitting Industry
 |  Tokyo, Japan

Knitwear

Uniqlo launched its first ‘made-in-Tokyo’ garment collection earlier this month, a limited release that heralds a new design process and business model for owner Fast Retailing. According to Japanese economic news website Nikkei Asia, the three-piece collection, which includes a Yen 2990 (US$ 27) 3D-knit cotton crewneck sweater, will be available at a Uniqlo flagship store in central Tokyo and online.

Fast Retailing plans to produce just enough to meet customer demand - a model made possible by a first foray into manufacturing, by a company that has relied entirely on outside suppliers to make roughly 1.3 billion pieces of clothing a year, the report said.

The centrepiece of the Uniqlo strategy is a building in the manufacturing dense area of Shinonome on Tokyo Bay, with no signs outside connecting it to Fast Retailing. In the factory, machines from Fast Retailing partner Shima Seiki steadily churn out seamless knitted garments. The facility operates around the clock, producing 1000 pieces per day.

According to the report, the plant started up in April, and is operated by Innovation Factory, a joint venture with Shima Seiki that was a subsidiary of the knitting machine builder before Fast Retailing boosted its stake late last year to 51% from 49%.

"Having a factory that we lead ourselves will enable closer cooperation between our headquarters in Ariake [Tokyo] and production," Innovation Factory CEO Tomoya Utsuno told Nikkei Asia.

The usual development cycle for Fast Retailing products has had issues with disconnect between physically distant teams, the report continues. It starts off with planning by a team at the Ariake office, which works out numerical specifications for the new item. Once preparations for mass production get underway, the Ariake team then coordinates with the Innovation Factory, which was previously based in Wakayama, Shima Seiki’s hometown.

But, the report says, according to Fast retailing, details such as texture cannot be quantified, and changes would sometimes be needed close to the start of the production run if the item turned out differently from what the development team had envisioned.

And because of the long distance between the Ariake headquarters and the Innovation Factory in Wakayama, staff rarely went so far as to travel there to check prototypes and make adjustments in person.

"Fast Retailing wasn't involved enough, and there were issues with product launches and the like being slow to get off the ground, " Utsuno said.

Since the launch of the Shinonome facility in April, product development personnel from Ariake have visited in person once a week, according to Utsuno. The shorter distance makes it easier to coordinate, improving communication between the teams. Fast Retailing looks to cut the time from product design to preparing for mass production from three months to one month or shorter.

The plan is to make new products from the Innovation Factory available at the Tokyo flagship store for limited runs, letting Fast Retailing gauge demand.

"We'll observe consumer trends, then switch to larger-scale production overseas if products turn out to be hits,” Utsuno told the news website. This will help the company cut down on unnecessary production and unsold inventory.

According to the report, Chairman, President and CEO Tadashi Yanai has said for some time that the Shinonome facility would be a global ‘mother factory’ for 3D-knit products.

By having the facility coordinate with the research and development division at Fast Retailing's headquarters and share information with suppliers in Vietnam and China, the company will be able to roll out products from Shinonome simultaneously outside Japan as well.

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