P2 Printing Tan Longsleeves - Marshall Atkinson

Can you predict the future?  Do you think you know what’s going to happen in our industry a few years from now?  We believe we know…and as a whole the decorated apparel industry is betting that nothing much is going to change.  Our body posture is “head down, gotta get this job out today.”

One of the biggest human weaknesses is our inability to comprehend that our future might be impacted by forces we don’t understand.  Beyond a science fiction movie, people just can’t predict the future very well.  We think we know, but we really don’t have a clue.  However, one thing is for certain and that is that we live in truly marvelous times.  It used to take centuries for major forces to change industry’s ways of doing business.

Now your entire business world can cease to exist in a matter of months.

Don’t think it can happen to you?  That’s what taxi drivers thought before Uber.  That’s what newspapers thought before the internet.  That’s what the hotel industry thought before Airbnb.  That’s what Blockbuster thought before Netflix.  That’s what bookstores thought before Amazon.  That’s what Kodak thought before digital cameras, and now phones.  That’s what record companies thought before digital streaming, and now Pandora or Spotify.

To make matters worse, all of those new businesses are also evolving into other areas as well.  Success breeds success like some weird sort of toe fungus, that morphs into the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  You don’t see it coming.

So what are we going to do when that slimeball slinks out of the swamp and heads into town to disrupt the apparel decorating world as you know it?

There are already signs that disruption is on the way.  Somewhere soon, there’s going to be a tipping point that will upset this industry.  Are you paying attention?

One day we may just find ourselves looking back and thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?”  How does disruption in an industry work anyway?

It always starts with some sort of problem and then developing an answer to that challenge.  I don’t have a car and I need an easier way to get from point A to point B than finding a taxi.  Enter Uber.  There’s nothing on tv worth watching but I don’t want to go a store to rent a movie.  Enter Netflix.  I love to read, and I want an easier way to get a new book.  Enter the Kindle.

So for apparel decorating, what are the challenges we all face every day?  If you take the marketplace (who the shirt is for) out of the equation, our problems are:

Inventory.  Think about all of the different manufacturers, styles, colors, and sizes.  There are so many different apparel choices out there that it is almost overwhelming.  Everyone had their favorites, but if the customer is choosing the brand and style that leaves the decorator at their mercy.

What innovation could spark a disruption in how apparel decorators are handling the inventory?

Rollercoaster sales seasons.  For a lot of decorators, sales are usually feast or famine.  We have periods where we have massive overtime and can’t find enough people to help; coupled with periods where we lay workers off or shorten hours for a few weeks.  It’s the uncertainty that is so heart wrenching.

Could there be a new sales methodology that either dries up orders for some shops while flooding others with business?

Creating the art.  Getting fantastic designs onto the garment with either thread or ink relies on skilled people that can translate that idea or image and make it technically functional for decorating.

What type of technological advances could wreak havoc on our industry design-wise?

Durable equipment.  Mechanical stuff breaks down over time.  Cheaper units break faster than more expensive ones, but everything will sooner or later have an issue.  Throw poor preventative maintenance, unkept working environments, chemicals and solvents and user problems into the mix; and you’ve got a big problem on your hands.

What equipment manufacturer is going to lead the charge for innovation in the coming years?

Production scheduling.  When will that job ship?  It’s the math problem we do every day based on variables that change constantly.  Is there an easier way?

Will there ever be a “perfect” scheduling software for this industry?

Skilled employees.  It’s easy to find people that can come in a box up a shirt.  Run and embroidery machine or an automatic press?  Incredibly more difficult.  Not to mention trained artists, digitizers or customer service staff.

What major challenge will this industry face in the next few years that will be an industry disruption with our staffing?

Production.  Actually printing or embroidering the shirts.  Will digital continue to gain ground as print head speeds increase?  Will embroidery machines ever evolve?

What’s the future look like for actually decorating a shirt?

Sustainability.  Everyone overlooks this, but think about all the consumables you go through each day.  New regulations and laws are enacted all the time that affect our industry.  How much do you contribute to your local landfill?  All of our shops use electricity or natural gas to run.  Is there a better way?

Could there be more regulations or legislation that affects our industry and starts to disrupt it?

Shipping.  We have completed the job and now it has to get somewhere.  Now we are at the mercy of a completely different industry with costs and rules that change constantly.  Not to mention some performance issues.

Virtually every shop relies on the freight industry in one way or another.  What changes to this industry will cause huge problems down the line for us in the future?

Money.  Get back.  I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.  As my Uncle Bill always says, “Money is the lubricant that greases the skids of life”.  A lot of shops are under capitalized, not financially savvy, or just plain bad at business as they discount their way to volume.

Yeah, I wrote the last one just so I could quote Pink Floyd.  Money is still a huge issue though, and if your accountant has a frowny face something could be disrupting your balance.  What will it be?

So which of those problems could produce the BIG disruptor that will change the industry?  

For the sake of a contrarian argument, let’s say none of the current challenges above foster the disruption for our industry.  Maybe there’s something in my coffee this morning, but what if the disruption was something that nobody will see coming?

Like Self Decorating Fabric.


Currently lots of R&D money is being spent developing wearable technology that can be woven into fabric for sensors, data and all sorts of science fiction sounding reasons.  How much would it take for the fabric to actually contain display chips or some means to turn a color or display a graphic?

Who needs printed ink or embroidery when the latest designer fashion can be just uploaded into your clothing?  Today the shirt is red with your favorite team logo, tomorrow the same shirt can be uploaded and it will be blue with a detailed fashion forward pattern.

Instead of going to a store to buy new clothes, what if users just subscribed to their favorite designer?  T-shirts on the whole are just about the same.  It’s the color and graphic that makes them different usually.

Already the apple watch has different watch faces that the user can choose on a whim, and you can custom select the dashboard gauges and dials for your new Tesla.  Imagine how much fun it will be to go to a sporting event and everyone can be the jumbotron instead of looking at one?  What if we were all just a big bank of display screens in a crowd?  Imaging how much fun instant replay could be then!

I know this sounds like a really far fetched idea, and to tell you the truth I wouldn’t start looking for a buyer just yet for your shop equipment.

My idea is just for fun discussion, and sounds like a conspiracy theory I know.  However there is some information out there if you look hard enough.

Don’t believe me?  Check these links out.  Will these dots be connected?

Fabrics Controlled by Apps on Phones 

Future Fashion: 10 Apparel Trends to Watch 

Military Invisible Cloak Technology 

Smart Textiles 

Flexible Displays 


Flexible Electronics