In a recent feature “Need of ‘Cost Cutting’ drives ‘Digital Transformation’ in Apparel Industry” the major factors were discussed as to why digitalisation of apparel manufacturing has become a dire need in COVID-19. Here we will discuss what all to digitalise and to understand how digitalisation of an apparel factory can lead to better efficiencies, better profitability and better sustainability.
The Evolvement of Digital Transformation in the Apparel Industry
Digital transformation journey starts from automated machinery, passing the IoT integration and aiming at ecosystem coordination. It is a long journey across all industries, which all starts from the hardware technology advancement. In the apparel industry, the invention of the sewing machine was one of the most important steps toward digital transformation. To further decrease the labour density, the hardware evolvement was applied with different technologies such as a smarter AI-driven cutting laser or a data-collective sewing machine.
On the other hand, there are another group of players who start to develop software and IoT solutions to manage the supply chain and the factory operation. The second stage of the evolvement usually takes most of the time, and the players of hardware and software do not have much connection and linkage with each side. Only until the level of development is similarly equivalent between hardware and software, the third stage’s players would start to integrate systems in each layer of the apparel manufacturing supply chain.
The integration of hardware and software would maximise the power of data and further enhance the efficiency of the manufacturing production, towards which the apparel industry is currently moving. Some of the hardware players are providing integrated solutions for apparel factories, such as Brother and JUKI, as says the report of YCP Solidiance. In the foreseeable future, the whole industry’s supply chain – which is not limited to production line but covers each stakeholder in the ecosystem such as logistics and retail – would be coordinated into a software system linked with hardware. The AI technology is expected to enhance the system in both software and hardware – which is the fourth stage in the Evolvement of Digital Transformation in the apparel industry ecosystem coordination.
Pre-production is mainly for material sourcing and preparation, which has a lower level of digitalisation as of now since the cost of material differs by brands and countries. Production, which takes most of the product cost, is the main process to be digitalised where different technologies in hardware and software can be applied and updated, especially in the cutting and sewing process, which leads to the creation of various integrated solutions to ensure the real time information can be noted down for analysis for every process.
Scope of digitalisation of production process in the apparel industry
As shown in the graph above, the production process covers pattern and cutting, sewing and checking and rework in the factory supply chain, and it is also the process with the most potential to be digitalised, as per the report of YCP Solidiance.
Pattern & Cutting: The first step of production involves a lot of different technologies and innovations being applied to the hardware machinery. Continuous cutting is possible with the computer NC machines (CNC machine) and the supporting programs (CAD/CAM). However, if the focus is only on the cutting technology, there are ways and tools such as knives, lasers, water jets, plasma and ultrasound depending on different cutting styles. Therefore, the main areas of current innovation in cutting are related to elaborated sub-functions or supplementary assistance to the existing cutting technology, whichever can increase the productivity, versatility and pattern-matching capability.
One of the solutions is the automated cutter made by Kuris Spezialmaschinen GmbH in Germany which is equipped with an additional cutting device and crossbar. The cutter performs synchronised and simultaneous cutting that can reduce the cutting time by 40 per cent to increase productivity.
Meanwhile, the automated cutter by Zund Systemtechnik AG from Switzerland allows users to change the cutting device interactively. The cutter includes electric or pneumatic oscillating tools, rotary or knife blades, laser modules, perforating or creasing tools and marking or plotting modules. Zund also has its software solution incorporated to it, which further segments the cutting process into ‘pre-cut’, ‘digital cutting’ and ‘post-cut’. With the software’s production monitoring, the data imported from the previous CAD design and the planning system would be directly linked to the cutting machine. As the data is recorded real time during the cutting process, the analysis based on the process can further improve the efficiency and increase the transparency of the operation.
Meanwhile, the pattern matching capability is one of the most time- and labour-consuming processes before the actual garment-making process. It will also produce a lot of waste of unnecessary material between rough and fine cutting. To improve the accuracy of the pattern with less waste, the onscreen image projection on the fabric surface before cutting would be crucial. As fabric represents around 60 per cent of the total apparel manufacturing cost, this becomes one of the processes from which every stakeholder would like to start cutting costs. Hence, fabric optimisation during pattern making and then cutting should be taken care of.
Sewing Hardware: Sewing represents 35–40 per cent of the total apparel manufacturing cost and gives another huge opportunity to the factories to control their cost. In the past decade, sewing manufacturing factories were located in developing countries. However, the strategy proves harder to maintain as more and more brands are planning to centralise their production line, and the labour market in Asia is no longer the cheapest. Therefore, digitalisation is the new approach to reduce cost in the long run, especially post-COVID-19. The production process of sewing can be divided into two sub-functions – handling of material and joining of fabric components. The material handling process indicates the transporting work from one place to another including lifting, moving, mounting, repositioning and the storing of WIP (work in progress). The progress is usually done manually so that only 21 per cent of the plants adopt a semi-automatic system.
According to Brother Sewing (Asia) Ltd., since the handling process takes 79 per cent of the total production time and nearly 80 per cent of the cost is related to handling, a lot of material handling systems are generated by different requirements. The material handling equipment exists in different parts of the supply chain, including cutting, sewing, finishing, in addition to various systems from relatively simple moving belts and manual push–pull rail systems to extremely sophisticated, computer-controlled automatic overhead conveyors.
There are also some innovative systems such as the Toyota System-style (TSS) quick response methods and the unit production system (UPS). More innovations with robotic arms for material handling have been introduced in recent years, although not yet commercialised to the factory level. For the fabric joining process, sewing is the most common approach which represents 85 per cent of the joining methods. Sewing is also highly labour-intensive and takes 35–40 per cent of the total production cost, encouraging a lot of innovation in sewing automation.
One of the most popular approaches is to assemble the sewing machine with fabric processing machinery such as a winding or calendaring unit. An automatic bobbin changing system would also increase efficiency in sewing. RSG Automation Technics GmbH & Co. KG from Germany presents the automatic bobbin changer with a patent. The key to advancing the automated sewing system is to do more than one production task and reduce the wasted time in material handling. For example, Shenzhou International Group – China’s leading exporter of knitwear with customers including Nike, Adidas, and Uniqlo – shared that they not only create the sewing module for a big amount of orders but also automate the original sewing machine from Brother and JUKI by robotics which only requires one person to manage three sewing machines. The automated sewing process does not only reduce the labour cost, but also ensures accuracy and quality.
Hardware + IoT: In addition to digitalising hardware, the integration with IoT is also a popular approach in the sewing process. See this case study where one of the leading garment manufacturers of India has introduced IoT sewing machine lines in its factories.
TSIL (India) is exemplary in its IoT implementation
One of the leading apparel exporting companies in India – Texport Syndicate India Ltd. – has implemented IoT in its sewing floor to revamp whole manufacturing business of fashion category. When a new project was to be set up by TSIL at Kodur District, Ananthapur, Andhra Pradesh, in the revolutionary disruptive times of Networked & Digitised Environment, the TSIL management team decided to invest in a Smart Factory for agile manufacturing and high efficacy.
Much to the company’s delight, the smart IoT enabled machines of Juki and Brother – which they have in equal proportion – provide real time, online production data, analysis and ease of operations. Due to this implementation, the reaction is multiple times faster in the assembly line to any production issues. The key factors of Smart Factory which the IoT technology delivers are as follows:
- De-bottling of Production flow
- Increased Efficiency
- Lower Downtimes and Quick Changeovers
- Optimised Utilisation of Resources with seamless identification of idle/underutilised resources
- Quick Reaction Time (especially to maintenance issues)
- Visual Quick Monitoring – By online, real-time data publishing
- Integrity Transparency – By eliminating manual intervention in data management
As far as Juki JaNets IoT is concerned, terminals positioned at each workstation are designed to monitor, track and report the entire breadth of the production floor activities. This significantly improves production balance, supply chain visibility and manufacturing cycle times. These terminals allow the entire factory to communicate quickly and effectively reducing the time it takes to react to problems and carry out administrative work. JaNets works to convert unproductive time into productive time or in other words increase efficiency.
TSIL has gained in major way by investing in this technology and witnessed profound impact on:
- Shortening of Learning Curve
- Optimised Efficiencies
- Integrity and Control of Manufacturing activities
One of the clients from Brother Machinery (Asia) Ltd. is May Hai Garment Joint Stock Company (May Hai) from Vietnam, which sells sewing products with fashion wear, jacket and knitwear. May Hai adopted the NEXIO System and made a significant change with the small lot improvement. The system offered three things that improve small lot production: 1) fast and accurate measurement; 2) rapid reporting and 3) data sharing among stakeholders. “As a result, we were able to increase productivity by 5 per cent,” reports May Hai.
Based on Brother’s survey on 66 factories with IE department, they found market potential to reduce manual work, which traditionally requires 40 per cent of working time and US $ 23,000 in one year, to 88 per cent time and cost cut, or from 7,680 hours to 960 hours.
Integrated Software: Although there are a fewer mature hardware players which introduced their IoT solutions toward digitalisation, more solution providers are joining the competition from the software’s perspective. To step into the competition to provide digitalisation solution, Zilingo and Coats both chose a fast way to strengthen the technology feasibility, as says YCP’s report. They leverage on their inherent strategic partners and stakeholders in the apparel supply chain which includes manufacturers, retail merchants, distributors and global brands. Thus, the high awareness among industry players would help them introduce their digitalisation solution to the market, which echoed in the view of Keith Fenner, the Managing Director in Coats Digital, “This is the beginning of an exciting new age for our software solutions offering. Coats Digital provides a clear and distinct focus and establishes that while Coats continues to be an industrial manufacturing company, we are also innovating technologies of tomorrow to improve how the fashion industry develops, costs, sources and manufactures products sustainably into the future.”
Apart from providing various solutions, Zilingo and Coats are focusing more on the planning and scheduling ahead of the production, which aims at cutting time and money to optimise the final output. Meanwhile, several other players focus on the SaaS product solution with an actual automation optimisation solution and customise their solution for different industries.