Competitive Strategies For Garment Manufacture

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"The clear market leader for the supply of real-time SCADA systems to the garment manufacturing sector in the UK is Kewill-Xetal (now XeBusiness), based in Manchester."

By Geoff Nelder, Manager, Masters Programmes, The CIM Institute, Cranfield University

 

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are difficult to pigeonhole. They can be anything from a display and current representation of a factory to a fully integrated part of plant management and business information systems. There is no doubt that SCADA systems can help to improve production quality and efficiency; there is also no doubt that many SCADA implementations have shown disappointing returns.

It would be too simplistic to place the blame solely on the technology. Relentless competition has produced cheap, powerful computers, reliable networks and data-storage devices and a wide-range of input devices from keypads and touch screens through automatic sensors to microprocessors embedded in production machinery. It has never been easier to collect data and in massive quantities.

Where SCADA disappoints, it is usually because the business needs have not been adequately specified, or because the system selected is inadequate to meet those needs. In the latter case, it may be that business needs have changed and the difficulty is a lack of flexibility in the installed system.

The key to obtaining benefits from SCADA, and avoiding disappointment, is to start with a clear idea in business terms of what is expected. Expectations should include current and predicted future needs.

Essentially there are three SCADA capabilities, which can be exploited for business benefit: for process control in real-time, process improvement and process visibility.

Machinists using Captor terminals to enter data in Mikar Holdings' Bolton factory.

Control

Control of production processes is exercised at multiple levels, with each level able to make a contribution to efficient and quality operation given timely and accurate data. Most immediately, operators usually understand the capabilities and limitations of the production process very well but lack objective measures of performance. Using a SCADA system to give workers real-time feedback on the quality and output rates of their work can have strong motivational benefits.

Given timely and accurate information, supervisors and managers can also intervene to good effect, for example when nominally identical processes are giving different results, when a build up of work indicates an emerging production bottleneck, or as soon as adverse trends in quality or output rates become apparent.

Improvement

Initiatives for process improvement are usually prompted by dissatisfaction with current performance, perhaps driven by an awareness that others are doing better. Whatever the cause, process improvements invariably depend on accurate knowledge of current performance. SCADA systems can deliver this, saving on the data collection phase at the beginning of a process improvement project.

More significantly, they can identify differences in performance between similar production systems in real-time. Used by supervisors and managers, this information can prompt early rectification of problems causing poor performance, and also identify and promulgate working practices delivering improved performance.

Visibility

Data may be needed for purposes external to the process itself. Customers may seek audit trails through the process for quality assurance or batch tracing. With some customers, this facility may be a requirement to win their business. Clothing retailers such as Marks & Spencer are well know for their insistence on quality conformance by their suppliers.

In other retail sectors, notably food, requirements are even more stringent and already supplierís management and control systems, which demonstrably ensure compliance, are one of the key issues.

The retailers can be expected, in the future, to migrate some of these more stringent attitudes to the clothing and other non-food sectors. Within a business, senior managers may require process data to prepare budgets and conduct investment appraisals. These demands will not affect every business, but where they do, a SCADA system can offer significant benefits by reducing the time and effort involved in collecting and formatting the required data.

SCADA Specification

The design of a SCADA system is complex, but there is no excuse for not adequately specifying the requirements of one. In practice, this is straightforward and a methodology consisting of a simple set of questions, used repeatedly, can serve to build a specification:

Sometimes phrased as Ďwho will use the data?' this question seeks to establish demand. If no demand exists or can be predicted, then there is no point in collecting that data. Different classes of user will have different requirements and these should be clearly identified at the start. Machinists, supervisors and managers will all want different sets of data. Any good SCADA system will be sufficiently flexible to allow for modification after implementation, but this will always be more expensive.

To establish purpose. It is all too easy to clutter information systems with useless data Ė information which someone decided it would be nice to have, but which in practise is never consulted. Collecting this data may be easy, but it still costs money and tends to obscure that which you really do want to use. It can be worthwhile to monitor the use of data. If it has been collected for some desirable purpose, but is not used, then presumably some of the predicted benefits are not being realised. Recognising and correcting this can help to ensure that the investment in a SCADA system meets expectations.

A vital but too often neglected question. Data used for production control has a limited lifespan. Machinists may need to know immediately if their production rate or the quality of their output has dropped. Advising them a day later is not good enough. The benefits of the real-time components of SCADA systems are nearly always seen at the shop-floor level. It is a grave mistake to neglect the potential contribution of shop-floor workers when specifying a SCADA system. Supervisors and planners may work to longer timescales, but these are still finite. If the reports cannot be produced when they are needed, then it is pointless collecting data to generate them.

The answer, in most cases, will be at their workplace. The harsh truth is that data that is readily available, which is presented to people where they work, is used. Despite best intentions, data, which has to be looked-up from a central filing cabinet, is not. Any SCADA system can provide customised displays for each user at their nearest terminal. This facility should be exploited.

Very little of the data which we can collect is useful in its raw form. Mostly it goes through an analysis step before yielding valuable information. How will this be done? If the analysis is known and repetitive it may be programmed into the system. In other cases we may want to use spreadsheets, graphics or other analysis tools, maybe in combination with other data within a management information system. If so, then transfer formats and systems integration issues become important parameters in the choice of SCADA system.

If a business benefit from collecting a set of data cannot be seen or predicted then it probably doesnít exist. If it is there then a way should be found to measure it, and this becomes the benchmark against which improvements can be justified and proven.

When these questions have been answered satisfactorily and an outline specification drawn up, then it is worthwhile to open discussions with suppliers and visit existing SCADA users. This process will help to refine your own specifications as well as identifying suitable suppliers.

Supplier Selection

Any SCADA supplier will be able to provide a convincing technology demonstration and list the general benefits you might obtain from their system. Their salesmen will be persuasive: that is their job. However, most SCADA systems have been developed using concepts appropriate either to engineering companies engaged in batch manufacturing of a small, stable range of products, or to process industries. Neither of these concepts translates directly to clothing manufacture and this mismatch can be a source of poor performance and endless frustration.

A good supplier will understand clothing manufacture and will talk in terms of your business as well as their technology. They will demonstrate excellent maintenance and service capabilities, they will be able to show you reference sites and will have a record of product development. The supplier should see you as a potential long-term customer, with future business and support contracts to be won. If they do not, then perhaps you should question their commitment to their product and to you as a customer.

The clear market leader for the supply of real-time SCADA systems to the garment manufacturing sector in the UK is XeBusiness (formerly Kewill-Xetal), based in Manchester, with more than 70 clients. David Cullis, the managing director, argues that the future of garment manufacturing in the UK lies in high quality and quick response niche markets where real-time production control will be a clear competitive asset. XeBusinessís strategy is to supply business management systems to clothing manufacturers in that market. They can supply a complete solution of individual modules linked to pre-existing business systems.

SCADA In Practice

Mikar Holdings, based in Lancashire, installed a real-time system from XeBusiness as one of several impovements to their Information Management Systems. In addition to the operational benefits they sought, they also required the system to satisfy their requirements for BS5750/ISO9000 compliance and from the start they needed integration with existing software to support the development of a full management control system. The XeBusiness system, with bespoke programs to link to Mikarís existing Omicron financial control system, met this requirement. The installed system consists of networked IBM PCís, a Minicap Captor terminal (Minicap) for each operator, hardware and software drivers and cabling.

The benefits have been felt throughout the company to such an extent that no one can now envisage being able to work without the real-time system.

A selection of input devices available for each operator.

 

The Machinists

For the machinists, the benefits have been better control over their earnings and fewer disputes. One of the real-time feature is the ability to display to each machinist their earnings so far, based on the number of jobs they have processed and most of the machinists use this as their standard display and pace themselves by it.

Work done is booked on the system and the time saves (an estimated minimum of 0.1 standard minutes per bundle) is available for production. Initially at least, Mikar have not changed their standard minute values, offering the machinists a chance to increase their earnings while the company enjoys increased productivity.

Wage slips and records of work booked are prepared automatically by the system. This has dramatically reduced disputes over wages and remedial work. After a short bedding-in period, the machinists have accepted that the system is accurate and cannot be cheated. The effect of this has been to improve morale, since each machinist knows that she is being fairly paid for her own work and is not being penalised or coming under suspicion for otherís mistakes.

The Supervisors

The supervisors at Mikar are enthusiastic advocates for the real-time system. On one estimate the system saves each supervisor up to eight hours per week; time that was formerly spent resolving disputes about wages, booking of faulty work and over-booking of work. This time is now effectively devoted to quality control and to throughput improvement by using the real-time system to identify and monitor production bottlenecks.

Removing pay and work-booking disputes has also improved the working relationship between the supervisors and machinists.

The Managers

Mikarís management see the influence of real-time control as pervasive and identify productivity improvements of up to 10 per cent, improved morale and motivation and better response to production bottlenecks and urgent production requirements as just some of the more dramatic benefits.

In Conclusion

SCADA systems are the latest step in a progression which has seen computers applied to all levels of business data management, from strategic management systems in the 1960ís through inventory management in the 1970ís, production planning and control in the 1980ís to real-time shop floor control today. SCADA systems offer benefits as they stand but are best seen as components of integrated management information and control systems designed to run the whole business.

SCADA systems were first developed in batch manufacturing and process industries. These models are not well suited to clothing manufacturing so care is needed in selection. There are now suppliers offering SCADA systems specifically designed for clothing manufacturers. These systems have a proven track record and are already offering competitive benefits to users.

 


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