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Lessons and Insight on Southland Businesses

Tailored for Efficiency

Apparel Makers Respond to Need to Automate


Sewing-machine operators in one half of the factory sit in uniform rows facing the front like students in a schoolroom. Mounds of fabric stacked around them, these workers assemble clothing through a traditional process known as "progressive bundling."

This decades-old system is named for stacks, or "bundles," of precut fabric containing the pieces necessary to assemble between 10 and 20 garments. A worker opens one of these bundles, performs a single task such as sewing a zipper on each unit in the pile, then reties the bundle and passes it along to the next worker, who sews another component. The pattern is repeated until finished garments emerge.

But there's not a bundle in sight on the other side of the shop floor, where an overhead conveyor whisks garment pieces to sewing operators, who quickly stitch a collar or a pocket before the machine shoots the clothing down the line. This computerized mover, manufactured by Connecticut-based Gerber Garment Technology Inc., is called a "unit production system," since garments are manufactured one unit at a time rather than as part of a series or bundle.

The visual contrast is nothing compared with the efficiencies the Dunbars say they've gained with the new system. The work force has been pared slightly, to 165, and labor costs have been further reduced because employees spend more time sewing and less time handling bundles.

Quality is up and computerized work flow is smoother and more predictable. Last year G.S. Dunbar posted $3 million in sales. Now the company is gearing up to triple the size of its automated assembly line. Still, the industry veterans warn that this investment won't pay off for every small shop.

"You have to be totally committed to retraining your people and changing your whole operation," Esther Dunbar said. "It's a big risk with no guarantees."

Investing in technology was a risk that Brian Kennedy couldn't afford not to make at Cali-Fame of Los Angeles Inc., a Boyle Heights maker of golf caps and other sports head wear. Undercut by foreign competitors paying workers pennies an hour, the family-owned company, founded in 1925, needed a quantum leap in productivity if it hoped to survive another 70-plus years.

The production manager pushed his family to invest in a computerized production system, not only to cut labor costs but also to get a handle on where orders are at any given time. That tight control has enabled Cali-Fame to slash turnaround to as little as three weeks, down from 12 to 16 weeks under the old system. Such progress has given the company a leg up in its market niche supplying custom head wear for country clubs and corporate outings.

The $300,000 system paid for itself in just a couple of years, Kennedy said, though the cost has been steep for workers. Three years ago Cali-Fame employed 250 workers. Today that figure is just 150, but Kennedy is unapologetic about the downsizing.

"Everybody in this business is facing the same thing," he said. "If you don't change, you're not going to be around to employ anybody."

Industry experts say small producers don't necessarily have to spend hundreds of thousands to boost efficiency.

At the apparel research center at Cal Poly Pomona, Miner is preaching the gospel of "modular" or "team-based" manufacturing. Developed in Japan, this system has more to do with retraining workers and reorganizing work flow on the shop floor than investing big bucks on technology.

The basic premise of modular manufacturing, Miner explains, is grouping sewing operators into teams of eight to 10, who work together on a garment from start to finish. Each member is trained to perform multiple jobs, pitching in where necessary to prevent bottlenecks in their mini-assembly line.


That might not sound revolutionary, but it's a major departure from progressive bundling, in which stationary operators perform a single task over and over, concentrating only on their individual output.

Miner contends that modular manufacturing results in higher quality and calls it ideal for the quick-turnaround, low-volume production runs that are the bread and butter of the local industry. He says the system has attracted a fair amount of interest from local apparel makers, but few converts so far.

"Progressive bundling is how contractors have worked for the last 30 to 40 years," he said. "Unfortunately, doing it the old way because that's how it always has been done isn't going to cut it."

Pete Butenhoff, president of Textile/Clothing Technology Corp., an apparel research institute based in Cary, N.C., estimates that one-third of the productive capacity in America's apparel industry has made the switch to either unit production or modular manufacturing.

"That doesn't sound like a lot until you realize that seven or eight years ago nobody had even heard of team-based manufacturing," he said.

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