Although sounds simple apparel industry has one of the very difficult manufacturing processes. It is a labor intensive, skill based industry. This industry contains lots of wastes and therefore opportunity for improvement.
Apparel manufacturers allover the world is pressed to deliver high quality garments at low costs in shorter lead times. Most of the apparel manufacturers are turning to lean manufacturing to achieve these objectives. Manufacturing an apparel item involves lots of processes. Order inquiries, sampling stages, order confirmation, purchasing of raw material, inspection and storing of raw material, creation of cut plans and markers, cutting, sewing and packing are among key milestones of the process.
If we define the value from the customer’s point of view only the cutting, sewing and packing operations adds value to the product (apart from the design and pre manufacturing processes). Lots of processes happen to achieve the efficiencies in cutting and sewing and even in packing stages. But the reality is when it is analyzed in the bigger picture the total effect is negative on the system. For an example hours of time and tons of money is spent in calculating and ordering correct economical order quantities of RM, inspecting incoming batches of material (especially fabric) and creation of efficient lay plans and tight markers to save fabric. But at the end of the day it is difficult to use the saved fabrics in other orders due to minor variations in colors and the fluctuation of the customer demands. So the material ends as write downs. Every effort and saving is lost. This is a classic example of not aligning the total process to fulfill the requirement of the customer. In lean context this is known as sub optimization.
I have an ideal lean apparel manufacturing unit in my mind. There only the required quantities of RM will be ordered by the procurement department based on the pre calculated consumptions. Then the incoming materials will be delivered in small frequent batches. Supplier ensures the quality of the material. When the goods reached manufacturing facility it is ready for manufacturing. Fabrics will not be cut in lots. Single ply cutters will cut all the panels for one garment at once. This operation will be synchronized to the TAKT time of the operation. Single ply cutting will prevent the requirement for color shade matching and complex lay planning handling. But it might consume little more fabric than if it is done in a conventional way. But the reduction of cost and lead time in inspection, lay planning, marker making and rejects will bring a net positive result to the process. Every manufacturing module will operate with a single piece flow. Output will be packed immediately and will be delivered to the customer in small batches. This will reduce the cost of the product, improve the quality and will deliver the goods to the customer fast. And more importantly this will simplify the process.
Although there can be problems in achieving the ideal state described here I am sure you can achieve a near ideal solution with the application of lean manufacturing principles in apparel industry. Lean will bring the flexibility, high quality, shorter lead times and lower costs which are very essential for anyone in this sensitive market. No need to say that these improvements will bring you the competitive advantage over the conventional manufacturers.