With margins being squeezed from both ends, it is crucial for manufacturers to find “smarter” production methods without increasing costs or adding to already overburdened workloads, advised a new white paper, “Applying Lean in Apparel Manufacturing,” from technology-systems specialist Lectra.
The study emphasizes that “Lean” production techniques and methodology, already shown to be effective in the automotive and food industries, can play a key role in helping manufacturers streamline their processes and find new ways to keep up with market demands, while protecting their profit margins.
“Taking a Lean approach not only has a positive impact on profitability, it also leaves manufacturers with more time, money and resources to reinvest in innovation and business development, making sure they continue to thrive into the future,” the study states.
Manufacturers are under pressure to produce at lower prices to remain competitive in the global market, while production costs are rising. Between 2013 and 2015, manufacturing wages in China were estimated to have increased by almost 20 percent. Projections show that by 2018, it will cost more to produce in China than it will in the U.S., Lectra research shows.
Industry experts have noted that this is driven by more automation and low energy costs in the U.S. and more efficient manufacturing methods. American Giant, which produces in North Carolina, has adopted the Team Sew approach, adapted from Toyota’s manufacturing process. The method decreases quality problems and increases speed and efficiency.
Any process that wastes time, resources or fabric is not an option if manufacturers are to continue operating a sustainable profit model, Lectra notes.
“In this new environment, Lean, the foundation of operational excellence, is perfectly positioned to take center stage,” the study states.
Most Lean projects begin with what is known as “value stream mapping.” This involves evaluating the current situation, identifying waste in the value stream and mapping out an ideal future state to work toward. A number of different tools, techniques and approaches can then be applied to improve efficiency and streamline processes.
Once the major problems have been identified, getting the right technology in place can also make a major difference. For example, the use of 3-D virtual prototyping and patternmaking solutions in the apparel industry has made a major difference for some companies.
Lean proponents advocate a 5S approach — sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain — a sort of maintenance system for keeping the workplace organized and efficient on a daily basis. The method is a systematic approach that emphasizes the importance of upholding standards and discipline in the workplace. This ranges from faithfully maintaining daily housekeeping routines to checking and repairing equipment on a regular basis. This creates a foundation upon which companies can strive for continuous improvement and achieve superior results.
Just-in-time is another element of Lean that lends itself well to the apparel-manufacturing environment, the study said. JIT is based on the principle that excess inventory occupies valuable space and costs money to store. JIT focuses on having “the right material, at the right time, in the right place and in the exact amount needed.”
When JIT is combined with a Lean signaling and scheduling system, it allows inventory levels to be aligned with actual consumption, Lectra noted.
A truly Lean approach is not just about eliminating waste but also about adopting a philosophy. Lean methodology emphasizes continuous improvement. This means bringing the right tools and techniques together while creating a workforce that is willing to identify and solve problems.
“In a Lean environment, waste is rooted out and minor problems are resolved on a daily basis,” the study states. “With these small, incremental changes supporting the bigger overall goal, the value stream is further enhanced.”
But Lean is not a quick fix. Implementing it correctly requires commitment from management down to employees, Lectra notes. Yet, with the right approach, Lean techniques can have a major impact within the apparel industry.
Companies that have committed to a Lean approach have seen major improvements in productivity, efficiency, quality and customer satisfaction.
“Lean is not just about reducing waste. It is also about increasing value,” the study concludes. “Just as important, a Lean workplace can help improve employee morale, reduce absenteeism and make operations more sustainable in the long run.”