On Tuesday, Amazon was awarded a patent for “a system of on demand apparel manufacturing [that] includes a textile printer, textile cutter, and a computing device” that could be used to make apparel or textile home goods, Recode first reported.
The patent further describes a system that could batch orders according to a variety of categories, like type or delivery address, in order to improve efficiency of manufacture and order fulfillment.
Among the inventors listed on the patent are; Rouzbeh Safavi Aminpour, Aaron Takayanagi Barnet, Nancy Yi Liang, Adam N. Alexander, James Richard Wilson, and Javier Govea Mata. Barnet and Liang co-founded the 3-D printing startup Mixee Labs and later went to work at Amazon, Recode notes.
While textile and apparel manufacturing has been speeding up since the Industrial Revolution, “fast fashion” has perfected speed, with Spain’s Zara arguably snagging the crown for speediest. Since the 1970s, Zara has prided itself on churning out small batches of quickly-made designs, preserving the retailer’s ability to react to the varying levels of demand for any one piece.
Amazon has pushed assertively into apparel in recent years, from basics like socks and men’s shirts to dresses and athleisure. With this patent, the company looks to be dipping its toes into fast fashion, or at least making a move to cut down on waste by aligning its manufacturing process with demand.
That fits with Amazon’s data-based approach to retail in general and addresses one of the most vexing aspects of apparel retail — a high level of returns, especially in e-commerce, where customers don’t have the benefit of trying on goods before they buy. In fact, former Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren last year expressed some skepticism about reports that Amazon would do all that well in apparel sales, saying the company is "going to have an interesting challenge when they start getting all those returns coming back online.”
Indeed, while the patent awarded this week would help speed up and rationalize textile manufacturing, it won’t necessarily address the fickleness of the apparel consumer, who may yet change their mind even when a shirt is made to order.