With robotics and sustainability: “Made in Germany” is about to make a comeback

With robotics and sustainability
“Made in Germany” is about to make a comeback

By Clara Suchy

Companies are reviving Germany as a business location. After production was successively outsourced to Asia over the past decade, even the textile industry, which was declared dead, is now experiencing a surprising renaissance.

Expensive delivery costs, unforeseeable interruptions on the long journey from Shanghai to Hamburg, bottlenecks in the supply chain or rising CO₂ prices: the list of disadvantages for companies that produce in the east and sell in the west is getting longer and longer. The Corona crisis has shown how fragile supply chains have become as a result of globalization. And what consequences this can have for companies. Nevertheless, not many companies dare to bring production back to Germany. Because the production is more expensive in this country than in China or Bangladesh.

But a fashion company is now daring. C&A opens a jeans factory in Mönchengladbach. The company has been building the production site since December 2020. That was planned earlier, but the pandemic has postponed the start. The sewing shop has been in test operation since September 2021, and the laundry was added a few months later. In the first expansion stage, 100 employees are to produce around 400,000 and later 800,000 jeans per year – that would be a total of three percent of the gross goods volume.

Sustainable and environmentally friendly

A lot of time and energy was invested in the factory – an area of ​​4300 square meters had to be renovated. But the company still wanted to do it because “that way we have a lot more influence on the sustainability of the products,” says Betty Kieß, spokeswoman for C&A ntv.de. For example, only 10 liters of water should be used to produce a pair of jeans in Mönchengladbach, instead of the usual 50 to 60 liters. The availability of renewable energy in Germany would also make production more sustainable.

Statistics show that sustainable production is becoming increasingly important for many consumers. The Global Sustainability Study 2021 by the consulting firm Simon-Kucher surveyed 1,000 people from 17 countries about their consumer behavior. According to this, a total of 63 percent of those surveyed worldwide have made changes towards more sustainability in the last five years. Environmentally friendly consumption is also becoming increasingly important in Germany: 34 percent of the German respondents stated that they had changed their consumption behavior as a result.

The problem, however, is that consumers are generally not willing to pay more money for being environmentally friendly. The same study states that only 35 percent of respondents would be willing to pay more for green products. This corresponds to half of those surveyed who would like more sustainability. But C&A also wants to take these customers with it, because the jeans produced in Mönchengladbach are not intended to become a premium product. All jeans should cost under 100 euros – not the cheapest on the market, but not the most expensive either.

The jeans robots

This is possible for one reason, according to Steffen Kinkel, Head of the Institute for Learning and Innovation in Networks at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences and Professor of International Business: “It stands and falls with the extent to which manual activities can be reduced and at least partial steps automated “, he says ntv.de. And indeed, C&A in Mönchengladbach has automated a large part of its production.

According to the company, around 50 percent of production is automated. A machine cuts the denim: “In 17 minutes, all the pieces needed for 350 pairs of trousers are cut perfectly to the target size,” explains Kieß. Another machine sews the trouser pockets, another the seam on the zipper. This requires more than five seamstresses in Asia. In the laundry, a laser and no longer a person with chalk and a brush is responsible for the used look of the jeans. And all in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. “Automation makes relocation possible,” says Kieß.

When more and more companies moved east in the early 2000s, it wasn’t because it made more logistical sense to produce in China. Labor costs were low enough to accept higher transport costs. But then production became increasingly automated – also in China. And the companies increasingly recognized: “Whether I run a machine here or in Asia, it makes no difference in terms of machine costs,” says Kinkel. “The difference is only in labor costs.” However, if most of the production is done by robots, only a small part of the production costs can be attributed to labor costs. So the calculation for many companies is: higher labor costs in Germany, but lower transport costs.

Local is also flexible

But almost more important for production – especially in the fast fashion industry – is the flexibility that comes with technology. If the automated production enables a relocation to Germany, long delivery times are saved. This means that traffic jams, for example in the Suez Canal, are not as serious. Container bottlenecks also have less of an impact on production. “In addition, you are of course much faster and more flexible when it comes to adapting both the quantity and the variants produced to actual customer needs,” says Kinkel.

What’s more, production can adapt better to the fast pace of the fashion industry. Adidas has also recognized this. The sports fashion manufacturer has launched a series of sports shoes that are made with a 3-printer. The Speedfactory in Ansbach can launch new products quickly to meet the demand for new styles.

In the spring, C&A wants to sell the first jeans with “Made in MG” on the label. Not only the company itself will monitor the coming months very closely. The entire German fashion industry is likely to follow the launch of Mönchengladbach jeans with excitement. Because the factory in NRW could fundamentally change the way things are produced in Germany. “I think the litmus test will be whether C&A can successfully produce and sell the jeans,” says Kinkel. “And if it works, I can well imagine that other companies will try something similar.”

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