SPESA Trip Report: Kathleen pt.1

This post came out differently than intended from when I started it. It started out as a survey of stuff as I came to it (CAD etc) and descended into a rant about fast team sewing, lean manufacturing and the Toyota Sewing System (TSS). Stick around, it’s readable. Promise.

First day of the show I met an industrial sewing machine repairman from Albuquerque. This is a big deal in a small state (population-wise) like ours. Paul Velasquez is at your service in the northern NM area. He used to work at Levi’s, now he sells and repairs equipment. Phone is 505-345-4318, cell: 505-263-0143, email. He mentions he is partial to the on demand ink jet printer from Brother that he saw at the show and thinks that is a good value if you’re looking to print your own goods in house.

Again speaking of New Mexico, if you’re looking for the Gerber CAD system rep for this part of the world (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) that would be Charles Armstrong (email). Trish told me to look for him at the show and I was glad I did. Interestingly enough, he says he installed 30 CAD workstations at a community college in Albuquerque which would mean somebody up there has started an apparel program. Interesting but I can’t substantiate it and I can’t go back and bug Charles about it because I can’t feed him at this point and you can’t bug somebody for information repeatedly if the service is only traveling one way. Plus, I already owe him because he sent me a list of sewing contractors in his territory -which I’ll post in the forum. Going to shows can be very useful, no? Maybe I’ll be able to pay him back if I end up buying that automated leather cutter. I promised I wasn’t going to post about that (yet) but I couldn’t break the second paragraph without doing it. I have no will power. Miracle says there is no hope for me. Final comment about Gerber, I can’t get these guys to return a phone call but they were great at the show! Lectra was another story. It took a very patrician VP seven minutes to notice us and then another five minutes for him to find someone to help us. That should give you an idea of their hierarchy. We just stood in the booth like dopes. Huge booth too. They even had entertainment, this silk dancer performing a gymnastic routine hanging from yardage suspended from the ceiling. I kept yelling out, “hire more phone operators and skip the dancer” but I don’t think anyone really cared about what I had to say. I didn’t say it very loud either. I could have bought their software.

Speaking of CAD systems, I’m amazed at how the prices have really dropped. Everyone was very competitive with each other, the differences amounting to packages, what you wanted the systems to do for you. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to afford anything, now the prices are definitely within range. I’ll write more about that later but the 3-D modeling was the big push with everyone. I know Amy (Fit Couture) really loves her system but it wouldn’t be useful for me. It still blows my mind that people can’t visually translate the two dimensional pattern into 3D automatically. There was one funny example though, one of the demonstrators (don’t remember which company) was trying to fix this pattern; the on screen model showed the blouse bunching at the back waist and I told him to open up the bottom of the blouse at the hemline and I don’t think he believed me but I made him do it anyway. His eyes got big as saucers when it worked. He had been trying to create darting to pull in the excess folds. If your back waist is bunching above the butt, you need more fullness below the waist. Then nip in the waist if it needs it.

As Eric mentioned, we saw the lean manufacturing demonstration in the America’s 21st booth (I had to harass them about their website because it is awful and in my opinion, they should be advertising here). I’d seen this before, it’s always impressive. They had maybe four operators, each sewing their own leotard. Total time maybe three or four minutes with no sweat. It always irritates me when people think that fast sewing necessitates worker abuse. It’s all in the set up. The leotards were already cut, an operator would take the pieces, seam the shoulders, side seams and the crotch, then move to the next station to attach the elastic to the legs, then the next machine to attach and turn the elastic neckline (same elastic, same seam but degree of stretch was different on each machine). Then the armholes. Then the operator would stretch the leotard on this metal frame with 1/4″ shaped tubing which was intended to check seam formation. After that, the operator attached the hang tags, folded it and stacked it. Neat.

Normally, in the traditional plant, one operator would only do one of these operations, necessitating the moving of large stacks or bundles moving from operator to operator with a final inspector checking seam formation and attaching the tags. In a lean operation, one operator walks from machine to machine performing all of the functions, handling is dramatically reduced. As I keep saying, most “sewing” time is handling time, either positioning the goods under the needle or ferrying bundles from place to place. With this system, you don’t need a conveyor or a floor girl to schlep the WIP around. Mike and Amy spent quite a bit of time in the booth and I hope to get a trip report from them. They got a price quote too. Including machines specific to their operation, training and consulting, it’ll cost about $35,000 to install one of these U-shaped sewing cells (don’t you dare say I printed that or I’ll deny it). I call them pods but they call them “mods”, don’t know why. That might seem like a lot of money when you’re first starting out but in my opinion, this is an incredible deal. I had no idea it would be so inexpensive. I do know one thing, Mike and Amy’s capacity will increase dramatically and they may need to start printing catalogs if they don’t already.

Speaking of catalogs, the sewers and machines came from an existing operation, a company called Motionwear. I think they have eight of these cells. They print a catalog. I’ve always been curious about how a catalog company could be lean manufacturer because with most catalog companies, you have to produce quantities in advance of orders but their man of the hour explained it like so. They put out a catalog seasonally to all their customers. Their customers place their orders weekly, deadline early Friday afternoon. By Friday afternoon, the company has aggregated all of the purchase orders for black (black outsells everything by a wide margin). By the end of the day on Friday, they’ve cut all their black styles for the following week and started sewing. By Tuesday, they’re shipping all the black orders. Wednesday, Thursday and early Friday is when they do everything else. Also, this plant runs two shifts. They say they have about 50 stitchers which calculating backwards would mean 25 stitchers per shift and with eight “mods”, that’d be about three operators per cell. They have mechanics on each shift who circulate between the mods, making sure everything runs smoothly changing over thread and the like. Typically, mechanics hole up in their shop and come out onto the floor as needed. Motionwear’s mechanics are stationed on the floor. Interesting.

I keep saying over and over till I’m blue in the face that lean manufacturing is the way to go, especially if you’re a small company. This system set up will pay for itself quickly, you’ll need fewer people in several ways. One, you don’t need someone to haul bundles around to operators sitting statically at a machine. You also don’t need one operator per machine which is how most people do this -so you use fewer operators. Alternatively, you could have fewer operators in relation to machines and circulate operators as needed but then you’d need to shift operators to the different machines (operators don’t like this) once the bundles backed up for that operation. What if somebody gets sick, has to go potty, arrives late or leaves early? In the traditional bundling system, your production for the day is messed up, you’ll have to get someone else to cover that operation in addition to their own. With this system, there’s no piles of stuff accumulating. It’s neat, tidy. You will still need the same number of machines but with this system, you don’t need one operator per machine. No no. One operator per several machines. Of course with an operator being out, you don’t put out as much stuff in that mod but no WIP is backing up.

In this system, you sew standing up. It’s easier to sew this way, you have more control too, particularly females. Our center of gravity is in our hips (and don’t we know it). Sewing standing up allows us to put some English in it. Besides, you’re moving around, your body feels better and you’re less likely to have repetitive stress injuries if you’re doing a wide variety of operations. I took the Motionwear mechanic aside, off the record, he loves it and says the stitchers do too. America’s 21st should be paying me for this. Oh go nag them for me -nicely- would you? I kid, I kid. Kind of. If you’re interested, the president’s name is Len Egan, a really great guy considering I probably came on a little too strong but I wish more people knew what this company is doing and think they should be participating in these parts. I mean, if you search for lean manufacturing and sewing, who do you think pops up first? Maybe they don’t need to work it since they have the TSS franchise? They do not strike me as arrogant in the slightest. I see the company also does some training sessions. If you write, be nice because I don’t want Len to get mad and yell at me over the phone. People -not surprisingly- tend to do that. Who knew Len’s Lean was so affordable?

I was going to reprint a chart from their site but couldn’t get it to format correctly. Usually when I see charts full of wild claims promulgated by consultants, I cringe but this is legit. These are very realistic (if not conservative) estimates and expectations.

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  1. J C Sprowls says:

    No wonder they’re happy… they’re earning (on average) $15/hr. That’s great!! Vesta and I commented amongst ourselves that responsible business owners need to find ways to offer the strongest wages possible in order to attract and retain talent. By reducing overhead costs (i.e. put the boss on the floor) and implementing the highest quality tools, a company enables itself to mete out better paying jobs for high-calibre employees.

    I’m also impressed by the TSS, both as a humanitarian and as an operations guy. The people appeared to be genuinely happy to be at work and engaged the audience where they could. I expect the high-salaried exec to lie about his/her job satisfaction; but, not an hourly staff member. Watching the employees joke and goad each other was also refreshing, considering how taboo that behavior has become in other industries.

    From an operations perspective, the key points that impress me most are:
    1) 30% reduction in square footage (!),
    2) 30% reduction in time/garment,
    3) 30% reduction in force, and
    4) 50% increased productivity.

    I’m most impressed with the reduced footprint for several reasons. Foremost, not only are you consuming 1/3 the space; but, you’re also using 1/3 the utilities, heating/cooling, maintenance, and insurance costs. In some geographic areas, those savings can account for the wages of 1 or 3 employees or the majority of the employee benefits program.

  2. Esther says:

    Did Optitex split off from TukaTech? I noticed Tukatech redesigned their website and Optitex has it’s own. The screenshots of Optitex are very similar to the drafting software that I use now, which was acquired through Tukatech some years ago. Tukatech no longer has screenshots of its drafting software. I am a bit confused.

    It is so hard to stay up on everything! Thanks for posting info from the show.

  3. Oxanna says:

    In this system, you sew standing up. It’s easier to sew this way, you have more control too, particularly females. Our center of gravity is in our hips (and don’t we know it). Sewing standing up allows us to put some English in it. Besides, you’re moving around, your body feels better and you’re less likely to have repetitive stress injuries if you’re doing a wide variety of operations.

    Interesting method, which seems to be great for results! And avoids repetitive stress injuries – a very good thing.

    Although I have to admit to some reservations. Does someone really want to stand for 8 hours a day? From my own experience in retail, your legs get very sore, and there’s that issue of stress on the sciatic nerve. (Speaking from painful experience. Admittedly, heels and fancy shoes do contribute to the problem, which wouldn’t be an issue in a factory.) Also, some women have issues standing for prolonged periods due to feminine health problems. I’d definitely be concerned about this, especially since most production sewers are women.


  4. Jennifer says:

    Okay, I have a question – say you go to modular unit like America’s 21 – How do you organize your work teams? by height? Seriously!!!!
    I am from Winnipeg, where we have large population of Filipino, Chinese or East Indian immigrants who work in the factories doing sewing. The height disparity between ethic groups and ages with ethic groups can be quite different. What about the lonely tall girl? which team does she go on? (Not that I know anything about that)

  5. I just reread the part in the book about sewing standing up, on page 111. Since another part of the book says you need nice, thick mats in your shop, both for the people sewing and the people standing at the pattern and spreading tables, then standing all day wouldn’t be nearly as bad as standing in heels in a retail store where the floor quality is questionable. Also, since the sewers would have breaks and lunches, they wouldn’t be standing for 8 hours straight. I’d think the cool shops doing production this way would make an allowance for someone who needed to sit that day.

    It’s funny how different the people in the booths at the show treated you. Didn’t they take customer service classes??? The inattentive and/or snooty ones, that is. (I thank cashiers when they actually count back my change so I can actually see I got the right amount of money back. I often count my money in front of the ones who don’t.) I had to take tons of hours of customer service training when I worked at (the now defunct) House of Fabrics, so it’s irritating when people don’t treat you like they should, especially when a woman asks the question and the answer is directed to the man with her. Yeesh!

  6. Ryan Brady says:

    Yes, anti-fatigue matting will help with the standing issues. Kathleen is correct though…standing is a much better position than sitting, even for 8 hours a day. The optimal situation is to have seating that supports a sit/stand posture which allows more more blood circulation (and therefore less fatigue) than sitting, but also gives the operator the option to relieve some stress on the lower body from constant standing.
    Having the worker go from station to station not only reduces the incidence of RSI’s but also improves blood circulation, reduces worker boredom and develops worker skills more than the single worker/single station model does.

  7. nadine says:

    I was super sad to missed SPESA this year due to teaching conflicts but I’ve attended Bobbin a few times in the past. I also agree that TSS is amazing. In the past they showed a cap sewing set up which was interesting. On the topic of standing while sewing, initially I thought it was excellent and many of the sewing operators in sit down positions get ankle problems from the sewing pedals. I’ve seen a lot of repetitive motion issues with a traditional factory floor set up. However, a friend went to work for Coach who uses a lean set up for their rather large in house sample team. So many complaints from the workers from the standing. My friend said sewing on his feet all day was hell. Other people working on their line have expressed that throughthe grapevine too. No scientific info to back this claim up. So now I’m not so sure if a pure standing arrangement doesn’t also have fatigue issues for workers. While I am still totally impressed with the pod set up and reduction of product handling.

  8. Eric H says:

    I heard an interview once with a posture and chair design expert (All Things Considered or perhaps Fresh Air) in which they said that the best posture from an evolutionary and spine stress standpoint is a semi-standing one, sort of what you might get by leaning your backside against a bar stool or table. Sitting puts your spine in a bad position and is ergonomically inefficient because all of the material handling has to be done with your wrists and shoulders, while standing allows you to use the greater leverage of your largest muscle groups. A happy medium for office workers was that Swedish chair that uses a semi-kneeling position and opens the thigh-abdomen angle to take stress off the spine, but this seems difficult to use in a factory where the worker moves from machine to machine. The expert said that knock-offs of the original kneeling chair didn’t get it right and don’t have the same benefits.

    My dad swore by his kneeling chair, but I never got used to it.

  9. Mike C says:

    I know Amy (Fit Couture) really loves her system (Optitex) but it wouldn’t be useful for me. It still blows my mind that people can’t visually translate the two dimensional pattern into 3D automatically.

    The utility of the software isn’t for visualizing the garment.

    Even I can take our 2-D patterns and figure out what they are going to look like on a person.

    Any benefits from visualization are secondary.

  10. crackers says:

    I had a long talk with those guys too. They were thinking upwards of $35k, more like $65 for an operation like mine, but the machines are much more expensive.

    Anyway, the point about height is what I started out responding to. Len is about 6 or 7 inches shorter than I am, but pointed out that the level of our elbows is what counted, and the variance of elbow height is significantly less than the variance of height. In other words, his elbow was surprisingly close to mine. He stated that you’ve got a 4 inch window of height to operate around.

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