A Smarter Apparel Factory
Robotic sewing machines are still a long way off. Automation may signify an impending doom for most manufacturing jobs, but in the making of clothes, machines are not yet a match against the dexterity and nimbleness of human hands.
“We are in an industry where the man-to-machine ratio is one-to-one,” says Samath Fernando, chief of H One, the IT arm of one of the country’s largest apparel manufacturers, Hirdaramani Group. Labour intensity is an embedded facet of the apparel industry. With fully automated factories in the likes of automobile and aerospace industries far out in the horizon, apparel manufacturing companies have ventured into the domains of supply chain efficiency and labour productivity enhancements.
H One recently launched a product, RES.Q, that digitizes quality inspection records. Its aim is to increase the cut-to-ship ratio, an indicator that represents losses incurred from the point of fabric cutting to final shipment, to the retailer. The average cut-to-ship ratio of local apparel firms is 98%. “For a $4.billion industry, that is a loss incurred in millions,” says Fernando.
Amid intense competition and the overbearing bargaining power of retailers, apparel makers are often under pressure to produce garments with ruthless efficiency and at the lowest cost. In the age of fast fashion, factories have to produce new clothing collections in rapid succession. “The big issue is that volumes are getting lower, as the number of styles are growing,” he says. This also creates a risk in quality deficiencies, with the need to adapt to frequent changes in fabric cutting operators and seamstresses.
When H One developed RES.Q, the idea was to create a data-driven shop floor. The quality inspector, equipped with a tablet, has a real-time view whether the clothes produced ascribe to minimum standards. If there is a defect in an item, the quality inspector has the ability to immediately address it at the point of cause. On the shop floor, in front of each production line, a large LCD screen is set to indicate the number of defects at each point. “There’s no point making data available only at the C-suite level,” says Fernando. “When the sewers see their count on the LCD screen, there is a visible improvement. The whole aim of digitizing data is to make it visible to the people,” he says. H One has already deployed the product at its own factories, and even sold it to some of its competitors. The company sees potential in taking the product to apparel capitals like India and Bangladesh, and to emerging apparel nations like Myanmar. For a labour-constrained apparel hub like Sri Lanka, Fernando believes the future lies in the long harbored intellectual capital in the local apparel industry. “Sri Lanka has the best apparel knowledge in this region; and every customer knows that,” he says. “What we should do is tap in to that and use IT to create a world-class product for the global apparel industry.”