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Boosting Efficiency Means Minimizing the Element of Surprise in QC

Surprises are great in many aspects of life, but not when it comes to the production line. The unknown wastes time, money and resources—three things apparel brands can not afford to lose. Traditional quality control measures do little to solve this problem, since they typically only highlight issues at the end of the process.

Veit Geise, former vice president of sourcing at VF Corporation, has spent enough time hoping that an upcoming shipment passes inspections, to know that the current QC model can’t be a long-term strategy. And while there are plenty of solutions on the market that promise to digitize final inspections, he’s skeptical about how useful they really are, saying “you’re trying to inspect quality into the garment, which is not possible.”

To provide more visibility into what’s going on earlier in the production process, Geise teamed up with Pivot88 to develop The L88P, a product that’s designed to allow companies to recognize and resolve problems sooner.

Here, he discusses why QC needs an overhaul, the benefits of greater transparency and how The L88P has driven down costs at VF.

Sourcing Journal: What would you say were the main issues in your industry?

Veit Geise: I think what made me most nervous, is that ever-looming quality failure you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. You open your email in the morning thinking ‘Oh, I just hope nothing failed yesterday,’ because there is a lack of transparency.

The way the process used to work is: we would place an order, and at some point, stuff ends up in a box. Then we would open up the box and it’s the big Christmas surprise of what’s in there. Hopefully, the production manager on the floor, or our QC guys have done the job as good as they can and as good as they normally do it, and everything looks fine. But still, there is an element of surprise in there and that made me always very uneasy. Because, you can control a lot of things, but you don’t have control of that intransparent production process.

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SJ: So, what was your idea for minimizing the surprises?

VG: These days, a lot of companies are specializing on digitizing the final inspection. To me, that’s just digitizing the surprise. It doesn’t really help me. It’s obviously better to have that data digitized than on paper, but it doesn’t really solve my problem. What we did is, we focused on the finishing section of the denim production process. Why the finishing section? Because on denims you really only know the quality and the problems that you have, once the product comes out of the laundry. Before that, the denim fabric looks fairly even and unshaded. But when it comes out of the laundry, that’s when you see what the product really looks like. The goods then get screened, pressed, monitored, thread trimmed and offered for visual and measurement checks.

So, we said, ‘Why don’t we digitize that whole process?’ We decided to engineer the finishing lines into a dictated process. So, it’s not QC by coincidence, it’s QC by engineering. Practically, we’ve given all the checkers tablets and mounted those tablets on tables. The checkers then log into the tablets, so we’re able to identify the checker. Every garment has a very simple QR code below the care label. Another possibility would be to use an RFID code. The checker scans the code with his tablet. The item pops up. He then makes the check and records his findings in real time, on the garment, on the system. Finally, the checker submits his findings, saves the data and gives the item to the next stage. This is how we digitized the whole flow through the finishing unit.

I would say the main advantage is, I no longer have to wait. The rule used to be, our inspector only touches the shipment after it is 100 percent packed, which actually increases the element of surprise. Now, I can see the quality that flows through the finishing unit as soon as the merchandise hits that finishing unit. That’s been a great advantage and produced super great results.

SJ: What was your defect rate, and how was it dragging down margins?

VG: We had been operating on an AQL [acceptance quality limit] of 2.5 percent, which allows you to ship 5.6 percent defective garments. Before we started using The L88P, our defect rate was 4.7 percent, so you can see how close we were going to rejection. And when you have a rejection in a factory, what happens? The factory opens the shipment, re-screens the shipment, represses, repacks and offers for final inspections again. Two things can then happen: They either miss the ship date and they air it, which eats the profit of the next five orders, so nobody wants to do that. Or they go into illegal overtime, because they have already used up all the overtime by scheduling them on 120 percent of production. So, that illegal overtime gets them into trouble when my CSR team goes in there and makes the next CSR check. So, it is that vicious cycle that we need to break. And the only way to break it is by knowing what you are doing and being able to react earlier to it.

SJ: What impact did The L88P have on these issues?

VG: After six months [of development], SQL on The L88P lines showed a 43 percent improvement over non-L88P lines, and efficiency of The L88P lines was 33 percent higher. Before we started using The L88P, our defect rate in the final inspection stage was about 4.7 percent. But after one year, that SQL improvement rate reached 60 percent, as the defect rate dropped to a constant 2 percent. And we’ve now brought that down to 1.8 percent on some days. So, we are going into a territory where failure is impossible. This makes me sleep well. There is no more looming danger of failure and air freight and all that kind of stuff. That’s history. If I can guarantee a factory to not run into that kind of trouble, that’s a big return of investment already.

SJ: You’ve been focused on the finishing stage. Do you have plans to extend this capability?

VG: The garment is already made when it arrives at the finishing unit. So, again we are looking at stuff after the fact. 
So, the next plan of Pivot88 is to extend The L88P into to the sewing section, so that we will be able to screen the sewing time and the sewing quality. And at the same time, we want to assign lines to the QR code, so that we can clearly see ‘Okay, it was that exact machine that created the skipped stitch.’ It then becomes even easier to trace it back into the sewing section.

Learn more about Pivot88 on their website.