Keeping up with consumer demand is a problem for retailers globally. They want products fast, cheap and well-made, and that pressure trickles down through every part of the supply chain. To cope, vendors have sought out the most efficient production techniques in pursuit of agility, and brands like H&M, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer and VF Corporation have begun to reexamine their quality control standard operating procedures.
To maintain consistent product quality standards, many brands have quality control teams whose job it is to design, mandate and audit processes for vendors to follow throughout production. In some ways, these quality control teams are the gatekeepers between the next order from that vendor, and as such, vendors throughout the world must follow brands’ quality control manuals, even if the procedures described do nothing to add value.
One example of this is mandatory fabric relaxation. Many fabrics, especially knits, need to be carefully handled to account for stretch that could be warped and affect the overall drape and fit of the final product. But oftentimes before the fabric pieces are sent through the sewing line, the fabric rolls are mishandled during spreading.
“Walk into Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, or any country where a lot of these garments are made, and everybody will tell you ‘You’ve got to relax the fabric, this is a mandate,’” said Ram Sareen, head coach and founder of Tukatech, a fashion technology company. He continued, “This is perfectly alright. Material handling standards are important. But do brands know what that is doing to the final product?”
Typical “relaxation” mandates require that a factory take perfectly rolled fabric, open it onto a table, and leave it there for a day or two to settle. Not only does the handling and friction harm the integrity of the fabric, but now one or two days are lost in the production cycle.
When it is time for production spreading, that fabric is usually handled by at least eight, but sometimes as many as 14 or 15 people, who catch and pull the fabric out of proportion as they lay it down. This creates uneven stretch about the fabric, and completely negates any relaxation that might have happened while the fabric was lying in a pile the day before. Factories are following the procedures as they are given, but sometimes those practices diminish the very quality they are seeking.
The same practices are often applied uniformly across all types of fabric, even if the necessity is not there.
For example, fabric handling procedures for knit fabrics may be applied to denim, simply because it is a “stretch” denim. “The stretch for denim is only in the width. You can relax the denim for ten years and it is never going to come back in the length,” Sareen said. These procedures become ingrained in local production culture, at which point changing processes becomes very difficult.
Quality control teams are adept at implementing procedures based on brand policies and manuals but need to assess actual application and effects of those procedures.
“Large retailers and brands have been chasing the cheap needle to stay competitive, but now they need to focus attention on implementing more efficient production practices,” Sareen said. Have big brands missed the most glaring loss of production resources?
Labor in the above countries is cheap, but labor accounts for less than 20 percent of the total production cost. The cost of fabric, on the other hand, equates to 60 percent to 75 percent of the garment cost. It is in the best interest of both brands and vendors to focus on handling fabric carefully, so the human and material resources are not wasted, and the number of steps and time for manufacturing is reduced.
Simplifying the fabric spreading process means reduction in the cost of labor, better product quality and a shorter lead time. “I’ve seen a team of 14 maximize their spreading capacity at 2,000 yards,” Sareen explained. When fabric spreading is done automatically with a machine, or even on a mechanized trolley system, the capacity increases. “One person using a $1,500 push trolley can spread 4,000-5,000 yards in an eight-hour shift.”
What’s more, automatic fabric spreading ensures that every inch of fabric is aligned and gently handled from the time the roll is opened, until the pieces are cut and ready for sewing. Automatic fabric spreading machines come with tension-free mechanisms to unwind material from the roll, and constantly monitor the tension during spreading to keep consistent tension throughout the fabric. This means that relaxation for most types of fabric can be reduced or even eliminated from the production process, which saves one or two days, plus the required labor cost, and potential for lost fabric integrity.
In addition to automatic fabric spreading, CAD systems help automate fabric planning and utilization, as well as other pre-production practices. Accounting for fabric shrinkage, for instance, automatically adjusts the piece geometry, even for very tricky fabrics. Cut-planning applications then run order scenarios to ensure the best lay plans, and nesting algorithms calculate the best utilization of the width of the fabric actually received. Such practices could save three to five days, 20 percent of staff, and 3 percent to 12 percent of fabric, as well as result in better quality garments.
Sareen said that even though vendors seem to understand the value of automated cutting rooms, changing the procedures requires external inputs, something he witnessed in a recent staff meeting at a factory. “The moment we get into engineering the cutting room, everyone puts their hands up, saying, ‘We have to check with our buyer!’” This means that embracing automation must come from the top down. “I think some training needs to be done in the buyers’ offices. The brands and retailers need to visit the vendors and see how automation affects the time and quality savings in the cutting rooms and use that knowledge to update their standard operating procedures, like others have begun to do.”
It is important to recognize that players at all levels in the supply chain have the same goal: agile production capabilities. Trying to speed up cumbersome processes is like training a bull to do gymnastics: it’s just not going to work. Choosing vendors based solely on cheap labor only goes so far in overall cost savings, especially when production methods themselves leave much to be improved.
Ram Sareen is the head coach & founder at Tukatech, a fashion technology company that empowers apparel businesses with innovative product development solutions, maximizing productivity from the pattern room to the cutting floor. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to re-examine the status quo and see where mandated processes can be reshaped with new ideas.