The textiles market is global and highly competitive. European firms find it hardto succeed against low cost economies such as India and China, especially when the latteris investing heavily, almost £1 billion ( approx. US$1.67 billion) this year, torestructure the sector. Their main advantage at present, as in other industries, is toexploit the technological lead which countries like the UK and US currently enjoy.
Modern computer systems and telecommunications are transforming the way companies dobusiness with each other. Leading retailers started the process. They insisted thatsuppliers link their networks together so that orders for individual product lines couldbe placed electronically and supply regulated according to demand.
The growth of electronic or e-commerce has also forced firms to look at their internalsoftware. The buzzword today is “integrated business solution”. What executivesare demanding is an end to the proprietary package, the computer application which wasdesigned to solve a specific problem but which does not communicate with any othercomputer network.
They want to know what happens when a change is made in one part of the manufacturingprocess. What impact will it have on other parts of the business, on efficiency,productivity and ultimately on profitability? And significantly, they want to see all ofthis in real time.
Until recently however, such systems were the preserve of the largest corporations. Afully integrated business solution was very expensive, costing at least £500,000 (approx.US$ 850,000). They were also designed as general management tools. They would be aseffective in ICI as they would in Marks & Spencer. But they seemed less appropriate totheir highly specialized needs of the textiles sector.
The industry has been relatively slow to adopt the latest technologies. There areindividual systems which have been of great benefit. Designers can create exquisitegarments on screen. These can then be converted into computer aided patterns to controlknitting or weaving machines. What they do not do is to manage all of the other aspects ofthe clothing supply chain.
In April last year, three British companies concluded that the old ways wereunsustainable. If the clothing sector in the UK was to become more competitive andresponsive, it had to use technology more effectively. Gerber Information Systems, GeneralSewing Data and Donisthorpe decided they had to pool their knowledge and integrate theirsoftware. The result is the Product Development Partnership.
Roz Davies was brought in to chair the group and to keep it focused on its vision. “The objective“, she explains, “was to add value to the sector by working together. The challenge was to shorten lead times, provide competitive product development and improve merchandising, planning and production control. The mission was integrated technology to deliver a seamless supply chain“.
One problem which they had quickly to overcome was how to open up the communicationflow. Gerber’s product development tool, PDM, had to be adapted so that it worked withGeneral Sewing Data’s productivity control system, GSD. Data from both had to beaccessible to Donisthorpe’s thread consumption software, SEAMS. All could share a singledatabase.
In the view of Kenny McMaster, sales director of Donisthorpe, this linking of systems “enhanced and protected the expertise of each company. We were integrating dedicated specialist systems but retaining the core competence of each partner. We had to develop standard technical specifications. This is key to the integration of Core Partners’ systems and those of any Associates who join“.
The PDP of today is therefore just the start of a long-term development.
The process of integrating the software took several months to complete. The partnershad to agree on a wide range of standards, from sharing product data to the most effectivecommunication systems. Creating the software was hard enough. But the concept then had tobe proved in an industrial setting.
The Russell Corporation has its European center in West Lothian. The company has sixseparate facilities there, most of them based in Livingston. The PDP members were allexisting suppliers and had a good working relationship with the firm. The result was thatColin Campbell, manufacturing group manager, accepted the challenge of becoming the firstpilot project.
“I was very keen to do so“, he says, “because the advantages of such a system were quite clear to me. Information and knowledge management will be a key competence for companies looking for success in the next millennium. So we put together a team from the different sites – design, product development, costing, manufacturing.“
“The advantages of such a system are in the speed and accuracy of entering the information. It would provide us with a single source of product specification and costing. It would take away a lot of the problems inherent in transporting data between different systems. Double keying can lead to errors which are not discovered until too late“.
His project manager, Stuart Anderson, admits that, previously, the company had notthought its IT strategy through. He acknowledges that they used “
“With so many sites here in West Lothian, what we used were internal mail systems, word of mouth and telephone calls. The potential for mistakes to be made was incredibly high. You had hard copies of size and grading charts, labor costings and other documents lying about on people’s desks for perhaps a couple of days. That can make all the difference in this industry“.
Working closely with PDP consultants, the company carried a detailed assessment oftheir business processes. They looked at how existing sites and systems could communicatewith each other. The result was a wide ranging programme for improvements from planningand costing to sourcing of materials and manufacturing products in a quality controlledenvironment.
The integrated solution now in place includes the software applications from the PDPpartners, plus Micrografx Designer, a computer aided design tool. These are operating on acompletely upgraded network, with new servers, PCs and printers. And to ensure the maximumreturn on the investment, all of the approved users have been thoroughly retrained.
The systems were installed in March. By August, their impact on the company’sperformance was startling.
“Using e-mail“, says Anderson, “we can send details of garment specifications, costings and thread utilization and other data from site to site almost instantaneously. From product conception to getting it out into the warehouse, we’re talking about a 50 per cent saving“.
The process starts with PDM. Russell’s manufacturing or sourcing staff enter the costof raw material into their computers. This information is available immediately todesigners who can then accurately cost individual styles. The program then produces a”bill of materials” for that style.
The network then imports other key information into the business management system.GSD’s labor costing and the SEAMS thread calculations are all added to the total cost ofproduction. Styles can be adapted or modified quickly with new costs generatedautomatically.
In Colin Campbell’s view: “We now operate in effect as a single site even though our manufacturing plant at Bo’ness is several miles away from the rest of the West Lothian operation. It has also cut our development times in half. We work to a strict merchandising calendar. So for the Russell Athletic range, we’ve taken three months out of that cycle“.
The development work being carried out by the Product Development Partnership has beenfollowed closely by the clothing industry. Companies throughout the sector have realizedthat, if successful, it could bring significant benefits to their operations. The resultsat the Russell Corporation may well have exceeded their expectations.
Certainly, there is now a growing queue of firms wanting to become PDP Associates. Thefirst to be announced were JBA (UK) and Datel Protex, with others likely to join in thenear future. According to Roz Davies, this is evidence of previously competing companiesbeing prepared to collaborate for the benefit of the British industry as a whole.
“Creating the PDP“, she says, “has been a major achievement. A lot of that has been about getting firms to work together, to find enough time to add value to their products. Now we need to see the whole supply chain working together from the design of an original garment, through the manufacturing and distribution process all the way through to the consumer“.
Becoming a PDP Associate will cost a company £250 a year. But it will confer certainbenefits. It will, for instance, provide a guarantee that a member’s technology meets theagreed standards. Links between applications will have been tested and proved to work withother integrated systems. Communication through the supply chain will be open and this,adds Ms Davies, is the PDP vision.
“Companies providing all kinds of products and services“, she concludes, “will be encouraged to have standard technical specifications for integrated links throughout the clothing supply chain. But we also want them to be two-way. We want data on store layout and sales to influence product development as well as the planning process to affect manufacturing“.
Kenny McMaster of Donisthorpe knows that if the industry does not embrace this newtechnology and make it work effectively together, the clothing sector in the UK willcontinue to suffer. “We’ve been hurt by competition from the cheap fingereconomies”, he says. “Our competitive advantage comes from using informationmore effectively to control the product development time.
“If we don’t make this work for us, we’ll start to lose core skills. People won’tsee a future in the industry and will look elsewhere. When you lose trained labor, it’svery difficult to get it back. The UK sector is highly sophisticated and what the PDP istrying to do is bring the best parts of that together, respond to demand more effectivelyand thus protect British jobs”.