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What Exactly is Lean Manufacturing Anyway?

We’re living in a consumer’s world—everything they want, they get, and retailers are beside themselves trying to accommodate.

Gone are the days of two clothing collections per year; now it’s multiple and new merchandise has to be in stores essentially all the time. For apparel manufacturers, that means more orders—but smaller, more complex orders—that have to make it to market ever faster.

What’s more, manufacturers are having to get these larger number of orders out faster in the face of rising labor rates and increased production costs, coming from things like higher energy prices, strong currencies and weak productivity growth. Not to mention that consumers expect the goods to be the highest quality at the lowest possible cost.

And the whole thing has certainly started to weed out the weak as evidenced by the ceaseless Chapter 11 filings.

The answer? Lean manufacturing.

In a recent white paper, “Applying Lean in Apparel Manufacturing,” technology solutions company Lectra said lean is the way forward for manufacturers that want to make it.

“Taking a lean approach not only has a positive impact on profitability, it also leaves manufacturers with more time, money and resources to reinvest in innovation and business development, making sure they continue to thrive into the future,” the report noted.

In short, the report continued, “It’s the only way to compete in the modern market. Any process that wastes time, resources or fabric is not an option if manufacturers are to continue operating a sustainable profit model.”

The basics of lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing was born in the automotive industry, pioneered by Taiichi Ohno, a manager at Toyota Japan in the 40s. But now more sectors are looking to switch to the process that contributes to overall efficiency in manufacturing. Many, however, still don’t know exactly what lean means.

According to the Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, “Lean means ‘manufacturing without waste.’ Waste is anything other than the minimum amount of equipment, materials, parts and working time that are essential to production.”

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There are seven types of waste based on that definition: waste from overproduction, waste of waiting time, transportation waste, inventory waste, processing waste, waste of motion and waste from product defects.

The 3Ms of lean

Lean manufacturing boils down to three Ms—muda (Japanese for waste), mura (unevenness or inconsistency), and muri, (overburden). The latter two are most often what leads to the waste.

“In an ideal cutting room, for example, the flow of demand is clearly managed and regulated. This involves defined ways of working, effective communication and the right tools and machinery to do the job,” Lectra explained. “However, if this is done poorly, or not at all, it results in mura (unevenness or inconsistency) in the workflow, which in turn results in muri (overburden) on the equipment, process and people involved.”

That could mean non-optimal fabric use, costly remakes and employee burnout, among other things—exactly what apparel companies need to avoid.

For a lean approach to work, all of the Ms need to be addressed, not just eliminating waste.

Taking the 3M approach to reducing fabric waste, for example, requires more than a cutter that controls the wasted pieces during the cutting process. It also means funding automated solutions that will optimize how pattern pieces are placed and how sizes are combined to get the highest possible fabric yield. A machine like that would save fabric, time that would have otherwise been spent creating a cut plan, and free up time and energy for the employee who would have been laying the pattern pieces by hand.

“In this way, inefficiency is attacked at all levels—not just the physical fabric waste, but also the burden of wasted time, energy and cost incurred when a planning process is not as efficient as it could be,” the report noted.

Implementing lean in apparel manufacturing

There are three key techniques for applying lean to the apparel sector: value stream mapping, the 5S method and just-in-time (JIT) production.

Value stream mapping is essentially what it sounds like—identifying waste in the value stream and mapping an ideal future state to work toward.

“Once the major problems have been identified, getting the right technology in place can also make a major difference,” Lectra said. Using tools like 3-D virtual prototyping and patternmaking solutions has made a major difference for companies like Under Armour.

Lean also advocates for the 5Ss: sort, set-in-order, shine, standardize and sustain. It’s an approach that focuses on the importance of upholding standards and discipline in the workplace.

In keeping with the cutting room example, an ideal scenario would involve ongoing machinery monitoring.

“Just as a prudent mechanic knows to change the oil in a car every certain number of kilometers, a lean apparel manufacturer might schedule regular system maintenance based on production output,” the report noted.

The key to inventory control

The third element to lean manufacturing for apparel is getting the inventory right—the bane of many a retailer these days.

JIT inventory is based on the sensible principle that too much inventory takes up valuable space and costs money to store.

If JIT is combined with lean scheduling, or kanban in Japanese. Inventory levels can be aligned with consumption.

Here’s how: Smart solutions that can accurately calculate exactly how much fabric will be required to fill an order work well with the JIT model because it helps manufacturers order just what they need, ultimately reducing the kind of clutter on the factory floor that inhibits efficient movement to and from the production line.

Taking it a step further, JIT and kanban can use the rate of demand to control the rate or production.

“This allows a product to be ‘pulled’ to market, based on actial sales data, as opposed to ‘pushed’ to market based on speculation of what customers will want—a particularly valuable strategy when applied to a fast fashion marketplace, which is often at the mercy of trends,” according to the report.

Predicting what consumers will want is passé and pricey. The key is to let point-of-sale store data dictate new order generation based on what’s doing well.

“The success of a JIT operation does not just depend on reliable and timely data transmission,” Lectra warned. “It also needs a manufacturing operation that is agile and flexible enough to respond to that data, turn orders around and deliver them to market in time to capitalize on the current trend. Lean methodology can help here too, rooting out and eliminating wasted time and streamlining processes.”

Go forth and get lean

It’s little secret that apparel manufacturing is an industry in flux and, increasingly, one at the precipice of change.

Lean may be the new way of the manufacturing world, but it’s not a quick fix.

“Implementing it correctly requires commitment from management down to employees,” according to Lectra. “Yet, with the right approach, lean techniques can have a major impact within the apparel industry.”