Increasing sewing operators’ efficiency: Not as difficult as we think

“…a high security factory in any South Asian country…, the workers start their day in the factory practising “warrior yoga” followed by a doctor-vigilant health food breakfast. The shopfloor is a scientifically lit soothing coloured chamber with an airtight artificially oxygenated temperature and balanced humidity level… The health of every worker is monitored at regular intervals and each is offered carbohydrate-protein drink frequently….Vitamin C and E pills have replaced candy bars during break… During the evening, operators enjoy their choice of cycling, swimming, dancing and step aerobics under strict guidance… After completing a healthy dinner, the workers go to sleep in a special dormitory – a simulated “alpine cottage” – where added nitrogen changes the mix of the air inside, reducing oxygen content while leaving pressure unchanged. The operators report for the next day’s work with energy-generating red blood cells.” The result? Operator productivity that is unheard of! Sounds absurd? Dr. Prabir Jana, Professor, NIFT, Delhi in his characteristic (unorthodox) style challenges the glass ceiling of operator efficiency.

It must be noted here that the views expressed in this article belong exclusively to the author and in no way reflect the opinions of any specific organization.

With growing retailer pressure to reduce the manufacturing costs, organizations in newly developed nations are constantly searching for innovative means to improve productivity. So much has been written, discussed and argued about increasing productivity of sewing operators in various journals and seminars over the years, which speak a lot about the importance of this issue. There are two different aspects of operator training for increasing productivity. The first one is the scientific screening tests conducted during recruitment and the second one is the scientific training given to develop skills, stamina and confidence. Unfortunately, both the aspects are scientifically unexplored.

While the training objective remains to develop an operator who will follow consistent rhythmic motions to sew fabric components effortlessly, and deliver quality products, different experts prescribe different methods to achieve this goal. The initial step is to teach a sewing operator correct  hand and body movements to accomplish the sewing task, and the importance of completing the exercises within a stipulated time. Human physical abilities, endurance and stamina are common factors of success, once the trainability of a subject is established. Though few experts emphasize building stamina, it is equally surprising to note the lack of any scientific training technique to facilitate hand motions and build up stamina. I would like to draw the attention of experts in the field of training and biomechanics by comparing the sewing operation with sports.

Limit of physical ability

Scientific training reflects and improves an operator’s physical abilities and endurance. Through scientific training and sports medicine, we see an average of 5% to 9% improvement in timings of pace and endurance (sprint and long distance) in world athletics between 1960 and 2010 (Table 1). If we assume that the MTM standards are established during the same period, i.e. the 1960s, why have timing standards for any hand motion not decreased any further during the same period? Does this not speak of a lack of scientific approach towards it?

Table 1: Adapted by author from (International Olympic Committee)
Athletics categoriesWR time improvement since 1960 (Men)WR time improvement since 1960 (Women)
10000 m 7.7%9.33%
5000 m7.6%5.78%
1500 m 4.66%11.64%
400 m3.98%12.18%
200 m6.10%7.31%
100 m2.35%7.72%
Average Improvement5.40%8.99%

From the athletics’ categories (Table 1), we also observe that men are on an average 11% faster than women, both in short sprint and long distance running, whereas in industrial engineering, we don’t have dual standards for men and women. I feel that we have to find an answer to these important but pertinent questions before we set out to establish a performance improvement programme for sewing operators.

Understanding speed and agility

The University of Pittsburgh’s coach, Joe Luxbacher, describes speed as having seven components (Table 2):

Table 2: Adapted by author
Seven components of speedIn the context of footballIn the context of sewing
perceptual speed using the senses to decipher various elements of a gameusing the senses to decipher workstation layout
anticipation speed predicting what will happen before it happenspredicting where the needle will penetrate
decision-making speed making decisions in the shortest amount of timegrasping, aligning, re-grasping while sewing
reaction speed ability to react to some action by a teammate or an opponenttightening or loosening plies depending on machine feed
speed without the ball maximum movement speedspeed of pick up and dispose
speed with the ball movement with the ball at the highest possible speedactual sewing
game action speed making effective tactical decisions to changing conditionsorganizing and executing the full cycle

If we look closely at the above table (with similarities drawn for sewing operations), we will see that the different aspects of speed are related to the speed of thought and decision-making. Sewing operators should be trained so that the execution of the skills becomes second nature, performed on an almost subconscious level, that lets the conscious part of the brain focus on tactics, not skill.

The cottage lets lowcountry athletes live in simulated chalets, making extra red blood cells as they sleep.

Is Sewing Operation an aerobic or anaerobic exercise?

How well do we understand sewing operations? Executing any work is an exercise; stamina building activities are sometimes also referred to as aerobic exercise. Here aerobic literally refers to all forms of sustained, moderate exercises including walking, cycling and jogging, not just aerobic step and aerobic dance classes.

In aerobic exercises, you get energy from the use of oxygen metabolizing fats and carbohydrates (glucose and glycogen) into waste products of carbon dioxide and water that are easily handled by the body.

If the physical activity is very intense, then there is not much time available for the oxygen to be produced and the muscles have to perform without it. In other words, they perform anaerobically. They draw upon energy from the existing carbohydrate supplies in the muscles through a chemical transformation process and you get a waste product called lactic acid. Once produced, the body has to get rid of the lactic acid and this is done during recovery while running slower, walking or while standing. During this reduced intensity work, you still inhale lots of oxygen – the more oxygen your lactic acid-filled muscles can use (a function of training), the faster the lactic acid is eliminated. Like a football game, sewing activity constitutes repeated short bursts of hard activity (dribbling in football) broken up by periods of lower intensity pick up and dispose (just like running and standing while playing football). Why can’t then the sewing operators be trained scientifically like in sports?

Alpine Cottage Simulator

Air Conditioning

In cross-country skiing which is an extreme aerobic endurance sport, mountainous countries (like Norway and Sweden) always have an advantage over the countries that are mountain-deprived because mountain air boosts energy-generating red blood cells. Several years ago, a Finnish scientist Prof. Rusko, invented a mechanical altitude simulator called the “alpine cottage.” The cottage can take the form of a sealed-off apartment or just a duct-taped tent. Added nitrogen changes the mix of the air inside, reducing oxygen content while leaving pressure unchanged. The cottage lets low-country athletes live in simulated chalets, making extra red blood cells as they sleep. While a number of people think that the cottages are no different than the performance-enhancing drugs that can have the same effect on red blood cells, Prof. Rusko disagrees, saying that a more appropriate analogy for the cottage will be to the use of air conditioning in a hot gym. Should air conditioned factories in tropical countries be therefore considered as performance-enhancing?

Portable CMR, configured for use in a high altitude room

Yoga to build stamina

A host of yogic poses are being promoted in the West as ‘warrior yoga’. These are built around the ancient warrior series (Virabhadrasana). These challenging poses promote bone density, tone the body and correct the posture by rectifying age or job-related spinal curves. Most importantly, they provide immense stamina. Other simpler poses that turn into challenging stamina-builders when duration is extended include the boat pose (Naukasana), the cow-face pose (Gomukhasana), mountain pose (Parvatasana). All yogic push-ups and variations of the balance pose (Santolanasana) build stamina and tone the spine. It is very important that exercise is sustained because of the time that is taken before the energy in the body switches from the initial anaerobic energy production system to the aerobic system. The body makes various physiological adaptations if you perform regular stamina-building exercises. The heart muscle becomes stronger and the pumping capacity of the heart also increases. This allows more blood to be pumped around your body per heart beat. Regular stamina-building exercise also increases and expands the lung capacity. More oxygen is allowed in and waste carbon dioxide is removed more rapidly, so that you do not get out of breath as quickly. Blood flow also improves through the lungs and around the body, which enables more freshly oxygenated blood to reach the muscles, organs and tissues throughout the body.

Stamina ensures, for instance, that an operator can continuously sew bundle after bundle without puffing or pausing for breath half-way. This then raises the valid question of whether yoga can be used at the workplace to improve cardiovascular fitness, i.e., the heart, lungs and blood circulation to work effectively and efficiently.

Body posture while performing Virabhadrasana

Performance enhancement through food supplement

In a Sports Journal of Medicine & Science on Sports & Exercise, the research team at James Madison University headed by Dr. Mike Saunders reported evidence that consuming a modest amount of protein in a sport drink during exercise increases endurance, reduces muscle damage, and enhances recovery. The athletes consuming the carbohydrate-protein drink (a drink containing carbohydrate and protein in a 4:1 ratio) had an amazing 24% improvement in endurance when compared to the standard 7.75% with a carbohydrate drink and an impressive 54% improvement when compared to water. In addition, the muscle damage (CPK levels) was 83% less when using the carbohydrate-protein drink. Florida’s football success was attributed to Gatorade (the first commercially successful sports drink) 35 years ego. Hence, will sewing operators be able to get some help by consuming carbohydrate-protein drink to maintain their cardiovascular performance which would provide an energy source to the working muscles, and thus improve productivity?

The short bursts of hypoxia and reoxygenation cause the body to utilize and carry oxygen more effectively and efficiently as part of the adaptation. IH has been shown to improve mitochondrial efficiency, myoglobin concentrations and lactate buffering. This translates into improved endurance, power and speed. The hypoxic condition can be created either by resistive breathing or nitrogen infusion.

Recovery after work

After exercise, the damage to the muscle cell walls allows some protein to leak into the blood. The main indicator of cell damage is an enzyme called CPK (Creatine Phosphor Kinase). When this is present in the blood, there is muscle damage somewhere. Multiple studies have shown that athletes who supplement their diet with Vitamins C and E have less overall muscle damage (less CPK) and faster recovery from exercise (CPK in the blood disappears faster), no matter whether the antioxidants are ingested separately (pills or from food) or as part of a nutritional supplement (a drink). There is ample evidence that athletes should supplement their diet with Vitamins C and E. But can it be a case of drug abuse if the sewing operators take vitamins C and E pills while at work?


Firstly, these unconventional (somewhat controversial) angles toward operator training and efficiency improvement and the vulnerability of such techniques are largely unknown. Secondly, if all these enable a dream factory to perform like no other ever in history, is the factory faltering anyway? Can the practice be called unethical or will it be called compliant? Presently, the answer to all above questions is unknown. While the wave of robotics in sewing is playing in everybody’s mind, the human being can’t be ignored. It is high time that we look into the scientific approach towards efficiency improvement.