Keeping up with consumer demand is a problem for retailers globally. They want products fast, cheap, and well-made, and this pressure trickles down through every part of the supply chain. To cope up, vendors have sought the most efficient production techniques in pursuit of agility, and brands like H&M, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer and VF Corporation, have begun to re-examine their quality control standard operating procedures.
To maintain consistent product quality standards, many brands have quality control teams, whose job is to design, mandate, and audit processes for vendors to follow throughout production. In some ways, these quality control teams are the gatekeepers of the next order from that vendor. 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 can be warped and affects the overall drape and fit of the final product. But at times, 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,’” explains Ram Sareen, Head Coach and Founder of Tukatech, a fashion technology company. He continues, “This is perfectly alright. Material handling standards are important. But do brands know what is going to the final product?”
Typical ‘relaxation’ mandates that a factory takes a perfectly rolled fabric, open it onto a table, and leave it there for a day or two to settle. In this process,not only is the integrity of fabric harmed due to the handling and friction, but also one to two days are lost in the production cycle.
When it is time for production spreading, that fabric is usually handled by at least eight, and sometimes by as many as fourteen or fifteen 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 these 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. Sareen explains, “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 length.” These procedures become ingrained in local production culture, and changing these fixed processes becomes very difficult.
Quality control teams are adept at implementing procedures based on brand policies and manuals, but need to assess the actual application and effects of those procedures. As Ram Sareen aptly states, “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. Have big brands missed the most glaring loss of production resources?”
Labour in the above countries is cheap, but labour accounts for less than 20 per cent of the total production cost. The cost of fabric, on the other hand, equates to 60-75 per cent of the garment cost. It is in the best interest of both brands and vendors to focus on handling fabric carefully, so that the human and material resources are not wasted, and the number of steps and time for manufacturing are reduced.
Simplifying the fabric spreading process means reduction in the cost of labour, better product quality, and a shorter lead time. “I’ve seen a team of fourteen maximise their spreading capacity at 2,000 yards,” explains Sareen. When fabric spreading is done automatically with a machine, or even on a mechanised trolley system, the capacity increases. “One person using a US $ 1,500 push trolley can spread 4,000-5,000 yards in an eight-hour shift.”
What is 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 labour cost, and potential for lost fabric integrity.
In addition to automatic fabric spreading, CAD systems help automate fabric planning and utilisation, 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 utilisation of the width of the fabric actually received. Such practices could save three to five days, 20 per cent of staff, and 3-12 per cent of fabric, as well as result in better quality garments.
Ram Sareen describes that even though vendors seem to understand the value of automated cutting rooms, changing the procedures requires external inputs. He witnessed this in a staff meeting at a factory recently. “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 and then move downwards. “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 recognise 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 labour only goes so far to result in overall cost savings, especially when production methods themselves leave much to be improved upon.