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INNOVATE® New Jersey

Unionwear manufactures – from scratch—100% made in USA baseball hats, backpacks, messenger bags, portfolios, and binders, with 160 union sewers in Newark, NJ. Mitch Cahn founded Unionwear in 1992 with six sewers and a contract to make baseball hats for Ralph Lauren, and has evolved by buying legacy manufacturers of related products and bringing them into a Newark facility fueled by lean manufacturing, automation, and cloud mobile information systems.

Unionwear’s vision is first, to be the only choice for any organization seeking made-in-USA promotional hats and bags; second, to leverage technology, media, and data to improve costs, quality, and delivery better than anyone in its industry; and third, to make ordering custom goods as easy as ordering from Amazon.

Unionwear really sells “Made in USA” to B2B clients who want to show their commitment to the American economy by putting a “USA Made” label inside company logo promotional items and event merchandise. The market has expanded from labor unions, political campaigns, and theUS government to include large domestic manufacturers like Chrysler and Budweiser who want to remain consistent with their “USA Made” marketing, and socially conscious companies who want to avoid any affiliation with sweatshops that might come with a made in China label.

For Unionwear, innovation has been less about product innovation and more about finding new ways to remain competitive with China or sell existing products to more markets. The competitive advantage of agile domestic manufacturers is their ability to make products on demand with precise appeal to ever-shrinking market segments. The problem is that there is no scalable platform that can convert this competitive advantage into sales. Manufacturers can guess what clients want, also known as product development, or they can ask the client to create their own iterations, but both methods are expensive and hemorrhage sales.

To solve this problem, in 2019 Unionwear developed a predictive configuration platform which has enabled the custom manufacturer to showcase its limitless capabilities by featuring over 100,000 styles of baseball caps on a user interface with the look and feel of a traditional ecommerce site.

The platform is really a complicated collection of interconnected technologies that configure virtual prototypes based on a user’s tastes. The SKUs can be browsed, searched, and filtered as easily and intuitively as the products on Amazon. When purchased, raw materials are ordered, production is scheduled, and the product is created and delivered in weeks. This process has had unexpected benefits, like the elimination of the configured price quote, product development, and custom order processes, and a commanding presence on search engines due to its large catalog.

The recent revolution in artificial intelligence has enabled Unionwear to double down on predictive configuration because it has eliminated barriers to the creation of virtual prototypes and theoretical products. Unionwear is now embracing robotics to enable it to increase its production in a city with limited space and a tight labor market. The company began with cobots and robotic arms assisting production line employees in doing repetitive tasks, and will have the first fully robotic canvas tote bag manufacturing line in North America.

The company is preparing for a continued surge in demand for USA made products. This surge began with a movement toward reshoring caused by the supply chain crisis during the pandemic. The last thirty years have seen demand for USA-made goods rise whenever events such as the Olympics or a presidential election focus the national consciousness on the United States. The next five years are going to be a perfect storm with several generational events coinciding, including both the World Cup and Summer Olympics being hosted in the USA, and the 250th birthday of the United States. These prospects have catalyzed Unionwear’s investments in innovation, in its employees, and in its community.

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