“Speed to market and sustainability are two of the biggest challenges in the [apparel] industry,” says Liz O’Neill, who has overseen the supply chain at Levi’s for the past five years. Often, companies end up sacrificing sustainability for speed by overproducing garments. But O’Neill tackled both issues last year with the launch of Project F.L.X. (aka future-led execution), which uses digital prototyping and lasers to automate the process of applying finishes to jeans (making them look worn or faded). She says the technology is already being used on millions of products, and she plans to scale it to cover 50% of the company’s jeans within the next several years. Here’s how it works:
O’Neill introduced software that allows designers to create a highly realistic image of the final product, which is sent to a machine at the company’s Nevada distribution center that laser-treats the design onto jeans within minutes. This speed allows Levi’s to stay on top of trends. “Someone in merchandising might say we’re missing a dark, destructed denim,” she says. “Our design team could [mock it up] and send an email, and we can immediately start manufacturing.”
Most finishes are achieved by washing denim repeatedly, often in chemicals—a process that’s wasteful, environmentally toxic, and slow, producing two or three pairs of jeans per hour. F.L.X.’s lasers can create a finish in 90 seconds without any harmful by-products.
Last August, Levi’s piloted a Customization Studio in Los Angeles, where visitors could tailor the fit and wash of their jeans, and pick from more than 2,000 finishes on an iPad. The jeans were made on the spot. O’Neill is working to expand the technology to allow customers to design jeans on the website or in stores and receive them within days.