As the world emerges from the darkest days of the pandemic, there’s a lot of discussion about the need to reshore manufacturing and create more resilient, less far-flung supply chains here in the U.S., so we’ll be better prepared the next time there’s a huge business disruption. A part of that discussion acknowledges that to make that supply chain shift happen, automation and advanced production technologies will be required domestically to replace the labor-intensive model practiced in less-developed nations.
It’s fortunate, then, that this week will see the third annual Detroit Fashion + Tech Hackathon (DF+TH), part of this year’s tenth offering of the Detroit Month of Design celebration. The apparel industry is a particular corner of manufacturing that has much to gain from aggressive development of higher-tech production solutions. “Of all segments of manufacturing, apparel has been one of the last to automate,” said Brenna Lane, owner of Detroit Denim, a DF+TH 2020 business challenge partner. “There are so many opportunities for technology to positively impact every aspect of the apparel industry, from manufacturing to customer experience.”
DF+TH is a competitive 36-hour innovation challenge that begins on Sept. 25. It was founded by Whim-Detroit in 2017 and is co-hosted in conjunction with Pure Michigan Business Connect, an arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that supports state industry with matching of buyers and suppliers. In the competition, diverse teams–often with members who’ve just met–attack problem statements submitted by local companies with the goal of creating new tech solutions. Participants research the problems, ideate and identify possible solutions, design prototypes, and formulate a business pitch to present to event judges on the final day. The top three then do a final pitch that determines the overall winner.
“Hackathons are not a new model for innovation,” said DF+TH founder Lori McColl, founder and CEO of Whim, a technology partner for businesses and innovation lab. “But they are new to the fashion world.” The concept originated in the software world, with similar events in which programmers, data scientists, designers, and other creatives would collaborate to create a working technology and data solutions during a defined period of time, from several hours to several days.
McColl combined a variety of her own interests in establishing DF+TH. “Prior to launching Whim, I was a Director in the Big 4, implementing large technology transformation projects for global corporations, specifically automotive, consumer products and high-tech organizations,” McColl explained. “I merged that manufacturing and consumer product experience with my passion for design and fashion technology, and my desire to establish the Detroit area for innovation, and launched the fashion and technology hackathon.” This also intersects with McColl’s role as the Innovation & Automation Chair of the Michigan Fashion Industry Council.
The DF+TH competition focuses on real business challenges that are co-created with existing brands and companies with existing manufacturing processes. Participants are a mix of established teams along with “free agents” who are virtually matched into teams before the start of the event, mixing team members to have a diversity of technical skills and general interests. Teams work through a defined methodology to support them through the problem, touching on aspects such as technology, manufacturing, and the business case.
“We’ve created something not everyone finishes,” said McColl. “In many of the teams, people are working with teammates they’ve never met before. This is an advanced manufacturing play, so technical basics and a diversity of skills are needed. It’s as much about how the teams innovate as it is about the fashion and the technology. Teams are actively applying advanced tech, future experience, IoT and AI against real-world problems.”
Along the way, the event offers benefits to its participants. “To help with the human element, we have mentors involved who assist the teams–experts in technology, fashion, manufacturing and business,” McColl said. “They help the teams stay on track.” There’s also the opportunity for competitors to rub shoulders with big industry names.
There’s a more substantial award for the top team as well. There is a cash prize for the top three teams, as well as a new entrepreneurial package worth $5,000 from ISM, Inc., a consultancy in Troy, Michigan, that supports technology, global leadership, entrepreneurship and community outreach.
For McColl, it’s an opportunity not only to further the industry, but to show another side of Detroit as well. “We’re doing interesting things in Detroit outside the automotive play,” she said. “This brings people together with different skill sets, where they can come up with breakthrough solutions. We get them out of the normal problem-solving rut and the traditional organizational structure. Teams come up with their own new ways of solving problems, really pushing the human element of innovation. They re-think how they think.”