Chinese Apparel Factory Improves Efficiency Via 80,000 Tag Reads Daily

By Claire Swedberg

Affirm Heart attaches a passive tag to each piece of fabric, so that it can monitor the manufacturing of tens of thousands of garments each day.

The mission of Chinese apparel manufacturer Affirm Heart Far East is to meet changing fashion needs quickly, providing a manufacturing method known as "fast fashion" that moves clothing from concept to finished product within a short span of time. To manage production in such a fast-moving environment, the firm is employing an RFID-based Apparel Management Expert (RAME) solution developed by B&S Equipment Development Ltd. and Calvin Wong Wai-keung, an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Institute of Textiles and Clothing. The system tracks products' locations from the time fabric is cut until finished garments are shipped, and provides analytics indicating where bottlenecks or delays may occur, as well as how long the production of any specific item takes, and which workstations are the most efficient.

The RAME solution comprises the Production Tracking and Monitoring Module, for monitoring the location of work-in-process, and the Intelligent Decision Making Module, which provides business analytics, such as productivity measurements, for a particular manufacturing line or product. B&S designed and developed the Production Tracking and Monitoring Module, while PolyU focused on the second module's design and development, and on the integration of the two modules to allow the intelligence module to capture data from the tracking module. GS1 Hong Kong provided consulting services throughout the solution's development, with funding support provided by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel.

At its garment factory, Affirm Heart installed an RFID reader at each of its 576 workstations.

Affirm Heart Far East produces women's high-end fashion for global brands. Its headquarters and factory are located in the Chinese district of Nansha—a two-hour drive from Hong Kong—where the company provides manufacturing services to marketers of women's high-end brand-name clothing. The firm also offers its own design and technical teams, in order to develop a new clothing item and quickly move it into production.

With fast fashion, orders are often fairly small and frequent, to meet styles changes requested by fashion brands. "Ineffective and inefficient production planning and control decisions lower production-line efficiency, productivity and postponement of product delivery," says Yvonne Wong, a senior marketing officer at GS1 Hong Kong, "which, in turn, increase overall operating costs to apparel enterprises."

Calvin Wong Wai-keung

The RAME system aims to help Affirm Heart optimize its apparel-production planning decisions and control, the company reports, by capturing and analyzing useful real-time manufacturing data.

In July 2010, the clothing company decided it wanted to adopt an RFID-based solution, but its managers were unable to find one that could not only identify where materials and finished goods were located, but also when they were delayed—and analyze the cause of that delay (such as identifying particular workstations that were slow, or specific apparel that required a great deal of time to produce). Affirm Heart began working with the RAME solution's developers to not only capture data but also provide analytics about that information. The system was then taken live to track the locations of products on four of its assembly lines by May 2012.

Once an item has been designed, the necessary fabric is ordered. When the factory receives the fabric, workers cut it into pieces and attach a 125 kHz low-frequency (LF) passive RFID tag to each section. GS1 generally provides support for solutions based on EPC UHF RFID technology, not those based on LF RFID technology. However, Wong explains, "UHF is not suitable in the apparel production lines."

Each tag's unique ID number is interrogated, after which that information is forwarded to the RAME software residing on a cloud-based server, along with the product-line data. That read event creates a record indicating when the apparel has entered the sewing process. The tags are read at workstations during sewing and then pressing, and again upon their arrival at the finished-garment department. Workers wave each item past the reader installed at their station (of which there are 32 per production line), as they complete each process, such as sewing on buttons, thereby creating a record of which items they worked on. The tags are removed before each garment is shipped.

Workers at Affrm Heart's factory attach a passive 125 kHz RFID tag to the piece of fabric used to make a single garment.

The software enables management to determine how quickly a specific item is being manufactured, in what quantity similar items are made, and when the process may become delayed. Every day, Wong says, approximately 80,000 tag reads occur throughout the entire factory.

The RAME Decision Making Module displays production progress and shares data with Affirm Heart Far East's own management software, which can identify potential production problems. The RAME software tracks not only how quickly goods are being produced, but also how quickly each operator works, based on the quantity of RFID tags read at a specific workstation. This makes it possible for Affirm Heart's production managers to schedule workers according to the efficiency of similar products, and to assign personnel to the stations at which they have proven to be the most efficient.

The entire system was taken live on all 18 production lines, comprising a total of 576 workstations, at the end of 2012, but the company began with four lines earlier in the year. Affirm Heart found, when the system was put into place on those four production lines, that labor costs were reduced by 8 percent, while production efficiency increased by 25 percent.