Back in 2018, the world’s leading garment manufacturing company Crystal Group made headlines when it ‘vehemently supported humans over robots’ in its official statement. Time and again, this debate creates a stir in the apparel industry and most conclusions state that robots are anyway not going to replace humans in the garment manufacturing industry that is and will continue to rely on human workforce. Robotics were the outcome of Industry 3.0 era while now is the time for Industry 4.0 as the apparel factories are gradually moving towards being dependent both on automation and data analytics – that’s the main requisite of transitioning into smart factories.
What exactly are smart factories and how relevant are they in the labour-intensive apparel manufacturing industry? Smart factories work on Industry 3.0 and Industry 4.0 applications together such as automation; robotics; cloud computing; RPA (Robotic Process Automation); data analytics; Artificial Intelligence; Internet of Things (IoT); and Machine Learning (ML). All these technologies, if implemented in the correct manner, result in massive cost reduction, quick turnaround time, flexible processes, minimal complexities, easy retrieval of data at any given point of time, quality improvement and productivity increase. All this is obtained in smart factories which are touted as enablers that work in tandem with the humans to make their job easier, to reduce the dependency on redundant manual efforts so that workers can be assigned other important tasks and to eliminate the chances of human errors.
The apparel manufacturing industry, being one of the complex industries and one of the largest employment-generating sectors globally, therefore proves to be an excellent candidate for implementing smart factories.
The necessity for building smart and connected factories in apparel manufacturing
Consider the following three scenarios:
Scenario 1: Imagine a factory that has all the machines and equipment connected with each other through internet-enabled tools and the outputs are being shown in real-time in dashboards or mobile apps!
Scenario 2: Imagine a factory that ends up having a bunch of apps and tools that are purely disconnected and disintegrated in nature.
Scenario 3: Imagine a factory that doesn’t use any connected devices but rather works entirely on a traditional set-up. At maximum, the factory is using some high-end sewing machines on shopfloor and a basic ERP.
In the first scenario, the connected tools help the factory in taking data-driven decisions in real-time by increasing visibility into processes and the potential losses due to human errors can be identified much before they actually take place. The number of factories with this sort of 4.0 implementation is anything below 5 per cent.
Advocating the need for implementing data-tracking tools in factories, Rakhil Hirdaramani, Director, Hirdaramani Group (Sri Lanka), averred, “Every minute counts in the apparel industry. As such, the need for real-time information is crucial. When a single production line produces close to 300 units an hour, decision makers can’t afford to wait hours for manually generated quality reports to be compiled, to make decisions,” adding, “To cater to the industry’s technical and challenging needs, the factories have to adopt a hybrid approach.”
In the second scenario, the investments into technology do not give the desired output as ‘connected’ tools aren’t placed to handle processes and the number of such factories in countries like India and Bangladesh may be around 15-20 per cent; while the last scenario is something the majority of garment factories (around 70-75 per cent) are currently working on and that’s where the problem lies. If factories rarely connect cutting with sewing, sewing with finishing and packaging with warehouse and then connect all these processes altogether, then no hidden losses are truly identified which results in suppressed profitability – which the garment factories aren’t going to earn anyway.
“Businesses who are not turning physical processes into virtual ones will simply cease to exist at some point. They will be unable to compete, much like the industrial revolution made companies extinct that didn’t invest in the automation of that era. History repeats itself,” commented Sascha Dobbelaere, MD, Tweave.Tech – a UK-based digital transformation firm, while interacting with Team Apparel Resources (AR).
Contrary to belief, smart factories intend collaborating with humans
Importantly, all these connected tools are never aimed at replacing humans from factories, instead they aim at taking up only those tasks which are arduous, have no scope for errors and require proper data collection to further decide on the subsequent processes in quick time.
What future-ready smart factories should look for is an interaction between machines and humans as well as the precise tracking of this interaction. If there are eight workers doing the same job or are assigned to do the same operation, the factory can use the data to determine who the best out of all is. Once it’s found out, the management can look deeper into data and find out what different that operator is doing from the other seven operators. This will help improve other operators’ performance and they will be able to increase efficiency and productivity. This, in turn, will result in better salaries also which is necessary to make humans embrace technology.
INSTANCE 1 – Connected Tools Help Train Workers
What could be a better example than humans working together with tech-enabled tools? HB Izmir – one of the first smart factories of the world made by premium fashion brand HUGO BOSS exemplifies the same.
The factory produces suits, jackets, shirts and coats with the help of over 3,500 workforce as well as technologies such as Smart Data Management (SDM); Group Board and Line Board; Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR); Active Digital Assistance (ADA); and Speech Recognition on its shopfloor. What’s more interesting is that the factory connects the four pillars – people, machines, products and processes – altogether with the help of technology.
According to Erkut Ekinci, Head of IT, HB Izmir, the tools are installed to support and train old and new workers. “Suppose one of the key members of any department of the factory leaves the organisation and the newcomer takes over the position with no idea at all about where the entire data of products, shipment inventory etc. is kept. Irregularities, time consumption, process overlapping and non-valuable activities remain a hurdle with such a process. Now, what if the entire factory data is tracked and retrieved at the fingertips? ADA or live chatbot in HB Izmir eliminates all the above-mentioned barriers as it keeps an eye on all information – real-time and historical. A person can ask anything about a particular production line, shopfloor, shipped orders, ready-to-ship orders and quality to get the desired information in no time.”
The entire apparel industry knows how soft training and their evaluation are done in apparel factories. One practice that HB Izmir has effectively followed is – creating training programmes for its operators, using AR and VR modules. The integration of AR and VR helps in operators’ soft training, quality process integration, product information and machine information.
For example, the factory in Izmir has developed AR tablets that help operators capture the machine image. Once the image is captured, the tablet uses this virtual image and plays a video process of the maintenance and lubrication process of this machine so that the operator can understand the whole process by himself, over and over again. This training is also made possible by HB Izmir by scanning the machine QR code in the tablet.
INSTANCE 2 – Piece flow tracking, maintenance time reduction can be obtained
IOT-enabled tools can also spearhead the maintenance process in garment factories for which the factory’s decision-makers have always been dependent on humans. For instance, Bengaluru-based Silver Spark Pvt. Ltd. (a Raymond’s initiative) is touted as one of the first smart factories in India that produces high-end suits and jackets with over 1,400 MTM suits production capacity per day. Silver Spark is a combination of automation and IoT – the technologies which are customised as per the requirements of the factory. The use of such innovative technologies has reduced human intervention and non-productive hours in non-valuable activities in the factory.
Talking more about IoT-enabled processes and how they assist workers in the factory premises, Kaushalendra Narayan, Director (Domestic Garmenting Operations), Silver Spark, said that all 1,400 MTM suits in the factory are enabled with end-to-end tracking through IoT. This system is indigenously developed in Silver Spark only. Every piece flows with a unique barcode taffeta label and a track sheet. Scanning of pieces is done at every stage to get real time WIP of each department. “Our system streamlines MTM internal portal with SAP and further with delivery portal site. This barcode system helps automate the fabrics, trims and pattern checking process as well as tracks the fabric inventory, raw material, order status and pressing of blazers in a more synchronised manner,” commented Kaushalendra, adding, “This system never intended to reduce our workforce rather we trained them to take up more important tasks.”
Another area where digitalisation has been helping workers in Silver Spark is machine maintenance. An SMS-based sewing machine maintenance system – IoT-based GSM device – is implemented to reduce maintenance time as it is integrated with all sewing machines in the factory. The sewing machine operator just has to press a button of his machine in case of a breakdown. A notification of this breakdown will go to the line maintenance team member’s mobile automatically. If he does not respond within a couple of minutes, it will go to his functional head. This maintenance time starts when a member of the maintenance team comes to the machine and switches off the button. Once done, he will note the time taken in this entire maintenance activity. This data is collected to further improve the maintenance activity on day-to-day basis.
INSTANCE 3 – Process Visibility and WIP can be improved substantially: huge relief for managers
One of the most significant tasks of digital tools inside factories is to make processes visible to all. For example – in cutting room, the management needs to have a peek into what’s being cut, how many pieces are to be cut, how many pieces are made right first time from production to wash and what is cut-to-ship ratio. These tasks in the majority of factories have always been taken care of by humans that give fragmented results and consume lot of time!
This is a usual case across factories in Bangladesh that’s predominantly a labour-intensive country and increasing visibility without wasting time of manpower is a discipline that’s missing in Bangladesh, as stated by Shovon Islam, Managing Director, Sparrow Apparels. “And when there is no system in place for process visibility, manipulations happen,” Shovon added.
Such mishaps are being handled in Sparrow Apparels – a US $ 200 million worth company that employs over 10,000 workers across factories – through automated process and workers’ support. Most of Bangladesh’s garment factories are employing over 2,000 workers and these factories need to be completely process-oriented, computerised and system-driven. “We have placed monitoring tools in almost every process on the shopfloor as it’s all about controlling inputs such as WIP in cutting, sewing, finishing and washing to get desired output. WIP should never be more than five days, irrespective of whatever products a factory is making. If digitalisation is put in place to track WIP, we can assign other productive tasks to workers. Previously, a team of supervisors was dedicatedly maintaining these reports manually which made no sense!” commented Shovon.
One of the world’s biggest garment-making companies EPIC Group also endorses using digital tools to track products and processes in order to deploy workforce for other important jobs. All new factories of EPIC Group are fully digitalised which include RFID tags for each garment that track work-in-progress (WIP) and drive efficiencies throughout the production process. The factories data is stored on cloud through an app where all concerned people, including its top management, can see performance of operators, sewing lines and even entire shopfloor in real-time. This process eliminates the need of traditional line managers as the technology tools are going to inform the decision makers where the balancing problem is and which line is giving low efficiency so that concerned departments can work accordingly and take decisions to improvise processes.
“Our new Bangladesh factory is completely digitalised and is called ‘micro-factory’. We have face recognition machines for workers in all departments; and we have state-of-the-art digitalised humidity-controlled rooms with dehumidifiers installed to suck out all the moisture from every garment produced in our micro-factory because one of the biggest problems in Bangladesh is high humidity. Imagine how these technologies are actually playing role of an enabler in workers’ lives!” commented Ranjan Mahtani, Executive Chairman, EPIC Group.
The time is now for ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) in manufacturing as fabric inspection can be advanced substantially using AI because sensors can detect flaws and defects better than a human being. More focus on AI can give the garment factories an opportunity to do practical investment with faster payback.
Support from workers is a crucial requisite to make factories smart
The garment workers today use smartphones that are connected with the internet, so embracing technologies isn’t quite a challenge for them. If smart factories intend to pass on monetary benefits to workers as well, they tend to extend their full support and all above instances prove this fact. Another point that substantiates the fact that technology can’t do wonders alone is that it’s human who is making survival strategies by understanding market sentiments and economic fluctuation. Technology can only help factories make processes simplified, assist humans in analysing the data and transform an operation so that it becomes more productive and efficient. The survival instinct is (can) always be felt strongly by humans only based on which they lay a strategy to stay in business and technology can be a good partner for them in their endeavours. That’s how smart factories can shape up their status while collaborating with existing workforce.
“In our factories, the workers do not only work on high-end sewing machines but they also want to learn about RFID and IoT technologies that we are using on our shopfloor in order to develop their understanding on how integrating such tools can increase process visibility! Many of these workers, particularly women, have already been promoted to supervisory posts, all because they have understood the advantages of technology and how it enables them to do their work better and faster! We have a great combination of young and smart people in our factories, as they become more and more empowered and technology enabled, they see incredible opportunity for improvement, job enrichment and career development,” substantiated Ranjan.