Global Scenario of Automation in Apparel Industry

Automation is the process or technique of doing certain works by the use of automatic equipment in the place of human operators during a product manufacturing. Automation is achieved by the use of highly automatic tools and equipment embedded with sophisticated electronic devices. Although automation eliminates the human operators from a specific job, they create new jobs to assist the automatic tools and equipment. Automation is widely used in several areas such as manufacturing industries, medicine, healthcare, engineering, supply chain, and distribution. There are several areas where automation reduces human intervention to a minimum resulting in saving of labor and energy; improved precision, accuracy, and quality of products; and high productivity.

Before 1947, the concept of automation was not widely used. Although the knowledge of automation existed in some areas such as temperature regulation, automatic loom, automatic spinning mills, and automatic flour mills, the concept did not gain wide industrial acceptance. Automation became familiar only after 1947, when the automotive manufacturer Ford established an automation department. Feedback controllers were widely used during this time for automation in manufacturing. The developments in digital technology, controllers, relay switches, and sensors helped in the designing of automatic tools for various automation applications. Today, there have been wide applications of automation in various fields such as chemical plants, oil refineries, mining, textile industries, garment manufacturing, steel plants, plastic manufacturing, automotive components, aircraft production, and food processing.

Clothing is the second most important need to human beings after food. This need is increasing around the world because of increased population and behavioral changes of consumers toward fast fashion. The apparel industry, in order to be more competitive, is driving toward mass customization. The global need for clothing is fulfilled by the production facilities in developing countries as it is not economically viable to produce cheaper clothes in developed countries. The last few decades have witnessed the shifting of clothing production to countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia, where the wages are the lowest. This has helped to keep the price of final garment low because of cheap labor overhead. However, the recent garment production is suffering from stiff global competition, rising labor costs in many countries, lack of skilled workforce, and a change in consumer behavior influenced by fast fashion and social media. Furthermore, the consumers today expect high quality and trendy clothes at cheaper price delivered to their doorstep in a short time.

The first stage in the manufacture of garments is the cutting of the materials into the necessary pattern shapes. These are then joined together by means of seams to create three dimensional garments. When a single garment is cut out, the garment pattern is attached to one or two plies of the fabric in a way that allows for any special requirements such as marching of the design of the fabric. The garment parts are then cut out with hand shears or electric cutters on dies. Where large quantities of a garment style must be cut, a lay is created that consists of many plies of fabric spread one above the other. From this must then be cut all the garment pieces for all the sizes that have been planned to cut from that lay. The pattern shapes for these garments may be drawn on a paper marker placed on top of the lay, or information as to their shape and position may be held within a computer, to be plotted similarly on a paper marker or used to drive an automatic cutter. Depending on the method of cutting that is used, there is not always a need for the pattern shapes and positions to be physically drawn on a paper marker, but whether the marker is drawn out or not, a marker plan must be made in which the pattern pieces are closely interlocked to achieve minimum fabric usage. In spreading the fabric to form a lay, the plies of fabric in the lay will be nominally the same length as the marker plan (Figure 1).

Sequence of the garment process
Figure 1: Sequence of the garment process

Though garments production starts from fiber and includes yarn, fabric, and garment manufacturing. In addition, other industries that produce trims and accessories for garments, leather industries, and fashion accessories industries are also considered as a part of the global fashion industry. The logistic providers for the supply chain management (SCM) of textile and clothing industries, retail stores, and the stores dealing with the recycling of end-of-life clothes are also considered as part of the fashion production process. Apparel manufacturing is labor intensive, but often there is a high demand on product quality. Hence, to fulfill the high-quality requirements, it is necessary that the labor-intensive processes are converted into automated processes accomplished by the use of computerized tools, digital components, and artificial intelligence (AI).

automation in embroidery machine
Figure 2: Automation in embroidery machine (Photo: Shutterstock)

Although there is a wide scope for automation in all the above activities, automation has not been widely adopted because of reasons such as high cost, complexity of processes, and availability of cheap labor. In spite of several benefits, in many of the developing countries, the labor-intensive clothing production still use manual practices as it was many years ago, rather than automatic equipment.

In sewing section, automation is more used from other section in garment industry. Sewing machine automation is a process by which the processing of a product is achieved with little, or no human intervention. However, there are very few examples of machine automation within the sewn-products industry, particularly in the garment sector.

automation in sewing
Figure 3: Automation in sewing (Photo: Shutterstock)

This can be attributed to the factors such as:
Clothing production has not progressed to the same extent as it has done in other sectors such as automobile production,

  1. Availability of cheap labor in many developing countries,
  2. High initial investment on the automatic tools and equipment,
  3. Complexities involved in the automation because of inherent nature of clothing production,
  4. Frequent style changes, and
  5. Production of a garment style in different sizes.

Global Scenario of Automation in Garment Manufacturing Industry:
The current scenario of automation in the developing countries where the garments are manufactured will be discussed here. The production of garments has moved from developed countries to developing countries to keep low cost of production mainly because of low labor costs. In spite of the technological developments, garment production is still labor intensive in these countries. There are only few technologies that have been widely accepted as automation by garment manufacturers, which include button hole machine, button attaching machine, bar tacking machine, label attaching machine, and pocket sewer.

automation in garment industry
Figure 4: Automation in garment industry

Technological advancements have helped the application of new concepts in garment manufacturing, which includes high sewing machine speed, CAD and computer- aided manufacturing (CAM) applications, new techniques in cutting, fusing, and pressing, and application of robotics. By introducing the new technologies into the process of garment production, a substantial increase in productivity and quality of work can be achieved. Consequently, the clothing industry is being transformed from a traditional, labor-intensive industry, into a highly automated and computer-aided industry. Garment production processes require, above all, the development and application of the computer-aided technologies as described in Table:

Table: Various automation systems and advanced tools in garment manufacturing

Technology used in automation Abbreviation Description Areas of application
Computer-aided design CAD Creation of design, drawing of garment components by the use of computers Designing, patternmaking, digitizing, and grading
Computer-aided manufacturing CAM Manufacturing of garments by the use of machines controlled by software Spreading, cutting, sewing, and material handling
Computer-aided process planning CAPP The use of computers in production planning of garment manufacturing Production planning, linkage between CAD and CAM
Computer-aided quality control CAQC Application of computers to inspect the garment quality Garment inspection, statistical process control
Computer-aided testing CAT Testing the components by the use of computers Intermediate testing of semi-finished garments, final inspection
Automated inspection AIN Presentation of the components and inspection are both done automatically Fabric, trims inspection
Automated material handling

devices

AMHD Used to automatically handle the fabric and other cut components Fabric, patterns, semifinished garment handling
Artificial neural network ANN Computational model based on the structure and functions of biological neural networks Fabrics inspection, color solutions, garment inspection, supply chain, retail management
Pick/place robots PPR Robots are used to pick products from one location to another Fabric handling for sewing
High-speed sewing machine HSSM A modern sewing machine that can run at very high speeds Used for different types of stitches to make garments
Numerical control NC Computers are used to perform preprogrammed sequences of machine-controlled commands Sewing, button holing, button

attaching

Modern fusing and pressing

machine

MFPM Fusing and pressing equipment for automatic temperature control, automatic on-off Fusing and pressing operations
Manufacturing resources planning MRP Effective planning of all resources in a manufacturing facility Production planning, process planning
Enterprise resource planning ERP A software that integrates several operation of a plant relating to technology, human resources, and other services Fabric storage, spreading, cutting, sewing, pressing packaging, human resources, inspection, supply chain, and retailing
Computer used factory floor CUFF Computers are used to monitor various operations in the production floor Spreading, cutting, sewing, and inspection
Internet IT Global connecting system that connects millions of computers worldwide Production planning, sewing, quality control
Communication CM The exchange of information between departments It can be between any departments during production, distribution and retail.

A garment manufacturer can have its own yarn and fabric manufacturing plants from where the fabric is brought for the garment production. This can help to produce the needed fabric within a short lead time with desired quality. However, majority of the clothing manufacturing companies procure finished fabric externally as per their requirement and convert them into garment. Some clothing manufacturers can also perform various other processes relating to garment manufacturing externally such as embroidery, patch work, or design printing from other producers and complete the remaining processes in-house.

Garment manufacturing in many countries is a labor-intensive process. Although automation is widely used in many other sectors, garment manufacturing is still considered as a labor-intensive process. The technology of sewing by machine has not changed much since its invention in 1790.

The level of adoption of automation or advanced technologies by a specific garment manufacturing depends on the following factors:

1. Industry size: The size of the industry plays a major role on the implementation of automatic and advanced technologies. Although smaller industries have advantages such as operational speed, flexibility, and adoptability, they are not in favor of automation because of low volume of production. Larger industries on the other hand adopt the automation techniques more easily. This can be due to the high volume of production that compensates the additional cost of installing the automated equipment. Larger industries focus on the research and development of newer technologies and more eagerly engaged in utilizing the technology.

2. Export market: The export potential of an industry influences its level of adoption of advanced technologies, which help them to gain competitive advantage, keep the product price low, and face more readily the risks involved in global volatile fashion market. An industry working for the domestic market can perform well without the advanced tools and automation; however, for export market it is quintessential to adopt the advanced technologies.

3. Garment styles: In several instances the styles and design of the garments influence the level of adoption of advanced technologies and automation. For example, a garment manufacturer producing men’s shirt can adopt automatic equipment for the attachment of cuffs and collars, which are readily available now at competitive price.

4. Profitability: The profitability of a plant also influences the level of technology adoption. An industry with higher profitability can easily install advanced technologies.

5. Available budget: An industry’s success on adopting the new technologies is also influenced by the quality of its capital stock. The amount of planned budget for investing on technology adoption influences the level of technology. As majority of the advanced technologies are expensive, a limited amount of budget for adopting the technologies makes it difficult to gain technological competitiveness. Furthermore, the available budget for installation, training, and care and maintenance influences the adoption of advanced technology.

6. Management policy: The top management of an industry manages its external relationship and implements policies for the adoption of advanced technologies. The top management is involved in the strategic decision-making process, planning and execution, research and development policies, and innovation and exporting policies. The commitment of the top management to technology adoption will shape the level of adoption of the advanced technology by the plant. The commitment of top management toward technology adoption is defined as “the degree to which the values and perceptions of the management are in favor of and open to technology adoption.” Hence, an industry with a dedicated team for technology adoption will have higher level of advanced technology in its production floor.

7. Technical skills: As the global demand for high-skilled operators is increasing, the adoption of automatic tools and equipment can help in this matter. Today’s manufacturing industries sought the operators to be multi skilled, but the number of skilled operators is dwindling. Hence, these skill requirements can be addressed by the advanced technology-based manufacturing systems. A lack of adoption of newer technologies because of poor understanding of the technical advantages and the potential usage will sought qualified engineers and technicians. The availability of skilled labor in an industry will help the adoption of the new technologies easier as the skilled operators can better manage the new technologies with their technical skills.

8. Competitive advantage: The globalization of apparel manufacturing has led to stiff competition among various global partners. Hence, in a highly competitive atmosphere, there is a need to adopt newer technologies and automation to gain the competitive advantage. When the industries gain competitive advantage with the new technologies, it is likely that they adopt it. The use of advanced technologies can better satisfy the firm’s requirements and fulfill the requirements of the customers. The advanced technologies can help in solving complex problems, produce improved quality, and reduced defects.

References:

  1. Automation in Garment Manufacturing by by Rajkishore Nayak Rajiv Padhye
  2. Automation in Textile Machinery: Instrumentation and Control System Design Principles by L. Ashok Kumar, M Senthil kumar
  3. Advances in Apparel Production Edited by Catherine Fairhurst
  4. Garment Manufacturing Technology by Rajkishore Nayak Rajiv Padhye
  5. http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/5913/automation-in-apparel-industry
  6. Application of robotics in garment manufacturing by Thomas Gries and Volker Lutz

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