Focus on the supply chain to develop, recruit manufacturing brands

By Bart Taylor | Feb 22, 2016

Last week's column on Colorado's rural apparel manufacturing initiative easily became the most-read article in CompanyWeek this year, thanks to a big assist from Fashion Association Denver and others who posted the content on social media.

Denver's fashion scene is very interested, it turns out, in the prospect of making more apparel and sewn products here. I pass this along to reiterate the importance of manufacturing and the supply chain to modern consumers who increasingly favor locally made products.

Are fashion professionals and enthusiasts an anomaly? Are they alone in paying closer attention today to the means of production, to where goods are made and who's making them? Or wanting a more involved role in decisions about materials and processes and the quality of goods being produced? Of course not. Colorado's craft food and beverage makers have empowered a new generation of U.S. consumers, in part through brands and products conceived and made locally, with high quality as a calling card.

There's high interest in the apparel manufacturing initiative because the prospect of local, widely available production resources would represent profound change for apparel and fashion professionals who've grown accustomed to prototyping and producing in Asia, or Los Angeles and New York, even for small-batch runs.

This must sound familiar to manufacturers in other industries. Companies conceive and design products here only to outsource production to familiar offshore producers or through services like Alibaba. We've created a much-admired ecosystem in Colorado to incubate ideas and intellectual property and companies. We're not close to developing an equally capable supply chain for manufactured products that would speed go-to-market and provide sustained support as the business and production scales. To put it another way, we're unsure how important our means of production are.

It's part of our collective struggle with manufacturing. Nationally, we're divided over whether free-trade agreements like TPP hurt or help U.S. industry. We can't decide whether manufacturing is key to future economic prosperity or a bygone sector passed over by a technology and service economy. Locally, we send mixed signals about the importance of manufacturing. Everywhere, we've essentially whiffed on training a new generation or two of industrial and vocational workers.

Here's a suggestion: Let's connect more brands with means of production and begin viewing economic development through the lens of a robust supply chain.

In part this means equal focus on incubating companies and brands but also on developing the service and supply network necessary to support them. It's a long list. Manufacturing and maker businesses need raw materials, advanced equipment, and transportation infrastructure. They need skilled labor, capital, technology, and go-to-market expertise.

The bright spots are certainly bright. The state's universities are churning out a stream of engineers and graduates with advanced degrees to populate high-tech companies. Regional tourism and lifestyle attributes attract a steady stream of motivated, talented entrepreneurs. And the region's bellwether brands are attracting resources and providing leadership to break through the most intractable challenges, like workforce development.

There must be more. Manufacturing will grow only as fast as a broad-based, cross-industry supply chain develops to support it.

A growth economy awaits.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at