Home keyboard_arrow_right Technologykeyboard_arrow_right Production Technologykeyboard_arrow_right Feature

Automation has now become relevant and ‘affordable’

by Apparel Resources

31-December-2017  |  10 mins read

Automation in Indian apparel manufacturing has come a long way since its introduction almost two decades ago. From being considered ‘unviable’ and ‘expensive’, it has slowly captured the industry’s imagination, making gradual but steady inroads in manufacturing commodity garments. It looks like it is there to stay or may even become mainstream. Dr. Prabir Jana, Professor, NIFT and Harish Gupta, CEO, Fashion Learning Resources, explore this journey of automation; what has changed in this process, how it is making business sense now and the road ahead.

In 1997, a rather non-descript Indian fashion garment manufacturer called Sewa Fashion in NCR installed a computerized numerical controlled cutter. It might have gone unnoticed then (and even now), but it was the Indian apparel industry’s first automation baby step and a watershed moment. While many formidable large manufacturing organizations were weighing the options for automation, a comparatively smaller fashion manufacturer took the plunge to take the risk of investing in one of the costliest equipment then in apparel manufacturing. Two decades have gone by. . . Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Industry 4.0, and many such jargons are becoming common buzz words in the apparel industry and it is just the right time to introspect the technology adoption scenario in India.

Mechanization and automation are often interchangeably used words and need some ice-breaking. Mechanization is the process of changing from working largely or exclusively by human hands and feet (or with animals) to doing that work with machinery. Whereas Automation is the technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means; either by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum or by mechanical device, operated electronically, that functions automatically, without continuous input from an operator. A third similar word Computerization is integration of computer device during the process of automation.

Duerkopp Adler 971-01 – Automatic cuff runstitch machine

Although garment manufacturing traditionally can be divided into pre-sewing, sewing and post-sewing functions, sewing remains the centre of attraction for machine developers and users alike. If we compare automation with typical black box approach where input is entered from one side and output comes out from another, some of the pre-sewing and post sewing operations have achieved automation to some extent. However, the sewing function in general is far behind with human intervention still predominant at every stage.

The commercial sewing automats were developed almost three decades ago, mostly for operations where fabric components before and after sewing remain two dimensional. All sewing operations can be broken down to three stages: loading (pick up), sewing and unloading (dispose of). While most of the automats were able to mechanize the sewing and the unloading process, the loading of fabric component remained manual.

Although the primary features of all those automats remained the same over decades, minor additional features were added over time. The direct-drive mechanism, dry head, electronic control over mechanical control (CAM-Follower mechanism), digitalization and introduction of internet of Things (IoT)… made the ease of operation better and enabled communication and networking between machines, saving energy, etc. However, it is interesting to note that none of the features actually affected the productivity or quality of the output directly. Also some of the changes were merely cosmetic or ergonomic; like adding new type control panel, upgrading the control box, changing the position of controls/guides, shape and colour etc. Then, what made the automation more relevant now?

Table1: Collar Runstitch (Return on Investment)
Year 1997Year 2017
CM price of shirt (Rs)50.0095.00
Sewing cost 40% 0f CM20.0038.00
Total SAM of shirt (in mins)31.0031.00
SAM value for collar runstitch0.360.36
No. of collar runstitch per day (shift of 8 hours)1333.331333.33
Working days /month2626
No. of months /year1212
Production per annum416000416000
CM price per pocket (Rs)0.581.10
Cost output/annum241548.39458941.94
Production Target (pcs/day)13331333
No. of machines required11
Cost of one runstitch automat (Rs.)661440.00582480.00
Cost of total machine (Rs.),T661440.00582480.00
Annual Depreciation (%)0.150.15
Depreciated value of m/c after one year (Z)575165.22506504.35
Salary of one operator per month5500.0012000.00
Total operators? salary (Y)66000.00144000.00
CM price from total m/c (X)241548.39458941.94
Cash Inflow (I)175548.39314941.94
ROI for the first year,(X-Y)/Z0.310.62
Payback Period in number of years (T/I)3.771.85

If we analyze the cost of labour during these two decades compared to the cost increase in the machine (Table 1), average earning of the sewing worker in NCR was approximately Rs. 5,500 during 1997 and the same is approximately Rs. 12,000 now. A cuff runstitch machine was US $ 13,000 in 1997 and the same machine is available for US $ 9,000 today. Factoring the rupee depreciation, the machine is barely 11.94% cheaper (not considering import duty) in rupee terms whereas the Sewing Machine Operator’s (SMO) salary increased by more than two-fold. Assuming the CM price for shirt has increased almost two-fold; the ROI for the cuff runstitch automat can be realized approximately in two years in comparison to almost four years earlier. This is only based on labour saving potential due to productivity improvement and the lower labour wages. The other benefits like energy savings, space savings, lower labour fatigue and higher retention are the additional advantages which make the whole thing more attractive.

Brother BAS-311HN – Label attach automat

If we see the price of three top-selling sewing automats from Juki and three top-selling sewing automats from Brother during the last two decades (Table 2), there is an average price drop of 26.6% in dollar terms and only 6.6% in rupee terms. Although in some automats, the percentage drop in rupee terms is negligible, overall automation is affordable now as the customer has not only become more demanding, but is actually expecting to see what benefit the technology can provide him in monetary terms. Can it improve his productivity? Can it reduce his cycle time? Can it improve quality? Can it save labour? And that is where we think the automats click (make sense) now more than earlier.
Average inflation during this 20 year period was 6.64%.

Table 2: Comparison of Price of Sewing Automats in 1997 and 2017
19972017inflation index base* 1997=100.00 2017= 352.15
USD rate 50.88USD rate 64.72
 USDINRUSDINR% change in USD% change in INRINR value in 2017 terms of 1997
Pocket welting22000111936018000116496018.18-4.07317865
Pattern tacking180009158401200077664033.3315.20260071
Belt loop attaching23000117024018000116496021.740.45332313
Juki DDL 55501200610568005177633.3315.2017338
Label attach automat13000661440900058248030.7711.94187829
Cuff & flap
runstitch 9000457920700045304022.221.07130035.50
Brother 7200C750381605503559626.676.7210836.29
Average 26.616.64

If we carefully analyze the Table 2, we see that:

  • The prices of machines in US $ has fallen between 18-33%, with average fall at 26.61%.
  • The prices of the machines in INR terms have fallen at an average rate of 6.64% except in  case of pocket welting machine where it has gone up by 4.07%.
  • If we adjust it for inflation in India for last 20 years where it averaged 6.54% annually, and also for the adjustment in machine prices and currency depreciation, the same machines look extremely cheaper by almost 2/3rd in INR terms. So while the real machine costs have gone down drastically, the wages have gone up.

The diehard naysayers of automation always banked on cheap labour and believed in adding basic lockstitch machine. The common comparison often was that sewing automats were multiple times costlier than productivity increase. For example, a dart sewing automat is five times productive (than ordinary SNLS) but 10 times costly; or a pocket welting automat is nine times productive but 16 times costly.

Does that multiplier indicate anything? Does the factor change over time? Actually not, if we look at the cost of automation in comparison to ordinary sewing machine in 1997 and now, we see the price multiplier did not change at all. During 1997, a single automat for Juki was costing roughly 29 times more than a UBT single needle lockstitch machine; even in 2017, it is almost 28 times. The figure works out almost 15 times for Brother, but remained the same over two decades. Therefore, it is definitely increase in the wage cost which has made the automats affordable now.

However, the twin factors of increased labour wages and decreased machine costs in real terms, after adjusting for inflation, lower machine costs and currency depreciation, have made the automats definitely affordable, economically viable and desirable now. Also the decreasing interest rates from almost 18% in 1997 to 10% now, provide additional motivating factor. So it makes a strong business case for Indian apparel industry to consider automation in manufacturing on its journey forward in view of fast changing paradigms.