With its tidy racks of dress shirts, trousers and sweaters, the Ministry of Supply shop on Boston's Newbury Street looks, in many ways, similar to other clothing stores.
That is, except for the 10-foot-long 3-D knitting machine positioned next to the checkout counter — the one that weighs as much as a car, is outfitted with 4,000 needles and can manufacture a customized blazer in about 90 minutes.
The process requires little in the way of human labor. After a customer selects the colors, cuffs and buttons of the garment, an employee programs the device to crank out a jacket to those specifications.
It may sound like a novelty, but make no mistake: It is a symbol of a potentially industry-shaking wave of innovation taking hold in the apparel world.
This is an experiment in the idea of mass customization, in which clothes are made for an individual's preferences or sizes. It's a departure from the model of selling standardized, mass-produced goods that has dominated retailing for more than a century.
Ministry of Supply's foray into this new territory is in its early days, and 3-D knitting is just one tool that could eventually be used to bring personalized garments to the masses.
But if this and other nascent efforts are successful, it could set off a scramble in the fashion business to radically transform the long-standing supply chains and design methods that are used to make clothes today.
If even a small portion of a retailer's goods are made on demand, it could slash some of their costs, since there would be no risk of getting stuck with inventory that customers don't like. It could also enable brands to react on the fly to trends, an increasingly powerful weapon at a time when social media is acting as rocket fuel for fashion fads. And it could help retailers meet the expectations of customers who are increasingly seeking out one-of-a-kind, boutique-like goods.
"It's going to be a big change," said Lisa Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles who studies design and mass customization.
The embrace of personalized goods in apparel is taking a variety of forms. Adidas is soon to open its second Speedfactory, a facility that eventually aims to manufacture sneakers that are customized to the exact shape and size of shoppers' feet. Men's apparel start-up Indochino has entered into a strategic partnership with a Chinese manufacturer that enables it to expand production of its made-to-measure suits. Amazon.com, which is emerging as a force in the apparel industry, has reportedly received a patent for a machine that makes custom garments. (Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos owns the Washington Post.)
Ministry of Supply, a start-up that began as an e-commerce operation and now has nine stores — including locations in Santa Monica, San Francisco and Walnut Creek, Calif. — currently has a 3-D knitting machine only in its Boston store, but says it is possible it will be making one-quarter or even one-third of its merchandise via 3-D knitting within a couple of years.
The machine in Boston, made by a Japanese company called Shima Seiki, knits yarn directly into the shape of a complete garment. In other words, there is no cutting and sewing and, therefore, no seams. Known as the Wholegarment Mach2XS, the machine costs about $190,000. Shima Seiki covered the cost of the machine for this experiment; Ministry of Supply footed the bill for its installation and handles maintenance.
The company charges $345 for a blazer made on the 3-D knitting machine if you customize the garment, or $285 if you buy it off the rack.
Gihan Amarasiriwardena, Ministry of Supply's chief design officer, said the process has key advantages. For one, the lack of seams makes clothing more durable, because seams are typically the place where wear and tear first appear.
Also, by knitting in the shape of the blazer, there is very little fabric waste, especially compared with traditional knit manufacturing, in which it's not uncommon for 30% of the textile to be wasted.
There's also a potential benefit to the merchandiser. Shoppers are increasingly spending money on what they believe are unique experiences, and they are increasingly curious about the origin of the goods they buy. By putting the technology right in front of them, Ministry of Supply hopes to cater to those preferences.
"We're really excited about exposing our creative process and letting the customers see that," Amarasiriwardena said.
The process that shoppers are watching is largely automated, with the machine doing work that in a traditional supply chain would be done by several people.
"It seems like it's a manufacturing innovation, but it really affects the entire business, from start to finish," said Aman Advani, chief executive of Ministry of Supply.
For one, the retailer has had to adopt a new design process for garments made via 3-D knitting. Instead of sketching new pieces on paper, they build them using software on a digital mannequin.
And since it is now a maker, not just a seller, the shop must keep enough yarn in the back of the store to crank out 50 or 60 blazers. (Each jacket calls for about 1½ pounds of fabric.)
Store employees must also master new skills, such as envisioning a garment at the yarn level. They spent a week with Shima Seiki learning how to operate the complex machine and to do maintenance work, such as changing the needles.
"When we look at competencies, there's design, make and sell," Amarasiriwardena said. "Traditionally our retail staff is just focused on the sales side. For this to work in the future, our team needs to be able to spread across all three of those."
Still, the technology has its limits. Even though the machine can produce a blazer in about an hour and a half, more steps are involved before Ministry of Supply hands it over to the shopper. The garment must be run through a washer and dryer so the material shrinks to the right fit. And the buttons and label have to be sewn on by hand by a store worker.
The retailer hopes to one day be able to turn around a garment during a single visit to the store. But for now, clerks tell customers that their garment will be ready in three to five days.
It is hitches such as these that make Felipe Caro, a professor at UCLA who studies operations and technology management, skeptical that mass customization can become ubiquitous in the retail business.
"Sure, there's almost no labor involved. But how many of those can you produce in afternoon?" said Caro, who previously worked on supply chain strategy for fast-fashion powerhouse Zara.
In other words, in mass customization, the retailer is always working in batch sizes of one. So even with the reduced costs associated with less labor and no obsolescence, Caro finds it hard to see how this can be a cost-effective model at a large scale.
And yet, Chapman of North Carolina State said there is plenty of incentive for companies to keep trying to crack this puzzle.
"There's going to be a demand for more personalized and customized products," Chapman said. "And that's where these new technologies have the potential to make an impact."
Indeed, Ministry of Supply sees more avenues for experimentation. In the future, it is looking at customizing the sizing of products made via on-demand manufacturing — particularly if it branches into something like dress shirts, where shoppers tend to be looking for an especially precise fit. The retailer also hopes to offer more style and aesthetic attributes for customers to choose from.
"We jokingly but not so jokingly like to mention that we only budgeted for one-way transportation of that machine," Advani said. "So we're betting on it being the future."