Whether your supply chain stretches across multiple building floors, cities, states, countries or continents, there is no substitute for knowing what is happening on the ground. That is especially true today, when clear visibility to order status on the factory floor can provide much-needed insight into when goods will be ready to sell.

With the pandemic’s continuing impact on brick-and-mortar shopping, many brands and retailers are adjusting. This could mean closing stores, pivoting to sell more online, rethinking how they plan inventory for upcoming seasons — or all the above.

At the same time, consumers are tired of sameness. They desire more diversity in fashion and are on the hunt for fresh looks and styles. Internet shopping obliges with virtually infinite choices at their fingertips. Brands must be agile and quick to move with trends to stay competitive, capture shoppers’ attention and win their share of wallet.

Given these pressures, brands and retailers are accelerating supply chain initiatives to better align production and demand. “The pandemic has prompted businesses to fast forward what they might have been planning to do with regard to technology,” says Charles Benoualid, vice president of research and development at CGS. “People are traveling less, and they have less presence on the battlefield, so to speak. They need a means of communication. So, technology is there to replace the traveling and the touch-and-feel component of apparel product development and production. Everyone is compensating for lack of physical and on-site interaction.”

Retailers, brands and their supply chains have an opportunity to use technology to build stronger relationships — and ultimately sales — based on better information sharing and knowledge. This article explores the role of integrated shop-floor control technology in this evolution.

What is Shop Floor Control?

Shop Floor Control (SFC) is an instrumental technology in the digitisation of fashion supply chains and Industry 4.0 — the intersection of devices, data, products and people. The physical and the digital are connected through the interaction of software solutions with smart, sensor-enabled equipment and devices across the factory floor.

The latest SFC solutions are much more flexible and sophisticated than their predecessors of prior decades. SFC tools can be based in the cloud or on premises, and they are enabled for wireless connectivity. They collect and feed data through mobile devices at workstations in the factory, tracking each order, cut and bundle as it flows through different operations.

The technology is highly interactive. Touch screen interfaces display product images and detailed instructions for operators. And with a screen swipe, managers can access alerts and analytics highlighting key performance indicators (KPI). SFC devices can be installed at owned factories and leveraged at contractors’ facilities.

SFC is part of the smart factory, integrated with digital sewing systems and other connected manufacturing equipment. For example, CGS has partnered with sewing machine supplier Juki to integrate BlueCherry® Shop Floor Control technology with Juki smart sewing workstations.

Real-time visibility from design and manufacturing to sales

When SFC is integrated with other supply chain technologies, such as product lifecycle management (PLM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, the combined connectivity enables businesses to quickly react to fashion trends and the changing retail landscape. Knowledge is power. For brands and retailers able to connect the data dots across their supply chains, that power is a competitive advantage.

Integration is essential to tap into this power. When systems are integrated, they are connected through computing bridges, or interfaces. Then information can flow freely, and it is accurate and timely. There are multiple pathways to achieve this integration. In fact, the smart factory of the future is readily within reach for many businesses today, regardless of their systems of record. Some invest in a single end-to-end solution. Others opt to build bridges between different applications, such as a stand-alone SFC solution and legacy PLM or ERP systems. Either approach will work with the right technology partners.

At the end of the day, investment in an integrated technology strategy will empower internal and external teams to perform their roles more efficiently and effectively. It will reduce redundant data entry, provide greater visibility and enable excellent customer experience. Following is a look at how integrated SFC and factory floor insights can yield positive results across three important supply chain segments.

Design and Product Development

Access to SFC information gives designers and product developers an opportunity to learn from what is working — or not working — on the plant floor. Then they can improve specifications and products for the future or make course corrections on current styles. For example, when designers and product developers have visibility into quality control (QC) data flowing from SFC to PLM, they can see when there has been a quality program with a pattern block. Then they will know that the block needs modification before it is used for another collection.

Technical designers and industrial engineers also can hone their crafts based on insights coming straight from the shop floor. For instance, they can watch live or recorded video, streamed from smart sewing workstations, showing how sewing operators perform various steps while assembling a garment. As a result of repetition and practice, operators often devise novel approaches to sewing styles in their bundles. From hands-on experience, their method may be much more efficient than those in the tech pack instructions. To close the loop and capture this innovation, tech designers and engineers can revise their documentation, diagrams and other product information in PLM. Then future production runs can benefit from incremental process improvements.

Manufacturing and Sourcing

Increasingly, retailers are tightening inventories for smaller store bases, and brands are experimenting with more styles to test consumer response before placing large orders. As a result, apparel wholesalers, manufacturers and contractors are faced with greater complexity. There is demand for them to produce a greater number of smaller runs of different styles in lieu of very large runs of the same style. In turn, they need technology to manage all the moving parts, to provide automatic status updates and to alert them if production is falling behind schedule. “It’s a lot more work to manage 10 lots of 1,000 pieces than to manage one lot of 10,000 piece,” says Benoualid. “SFC tools become more important if you’re turning to small runs.”

SFC technology gives manufacturing leaders instant access to information about potential bottlenecks and quality problems. For example, if a couple of operators are absent or several machines go down, production managers are alerted so that they can make plans to balance their lines, given the resources they have to work with. Likewise, with a real-time view of operations in process, they can catch quality problems much earlier. For instance, say an operator has accidentally sewn a button in the wrong position on a bundle of shirts. With SFC real-time monitoring, a manager is more likely to notice this issue sooner than if he or she had to wait for the bundle to pass through a QC inspection station before packaging. The operator can receive training to correct the issue, improving his or her performance and earnings potential for the future. And the bundle can be fixed rapidly, helping to keep the order on track. If a delivery delay is unavoidable, customers can be informed immediately of new ship dates.

Such proactive communication between internal teams and customers helps to build trust and lasting relationships.

Sales and Fulfilment

Being able to share valuable insights with customers need not be limited to manufacturing teams. Account executives, retail sales representatives and fulfilment professionals also can utilise integrated SFC information to keep clients informed. “The closer you are to understanding your real-time sourcing situation and where you are in the production cycle, the more you can educate your customers about their order status, and the happier your customers will be with you,” says Benoualid.

When SFC is integrated with ERP and PLM, these professionals can access not only real-time work-in-process data but also information about a style’s construction and costing details or a supplier’s historic turnaround time and delivery track record. These insights help salespeople to provide retail buyers with robust, highly targeted recommendations based on reliable facts.

In addition, when sales and fulfilment teams can literally see how a style is taking shape on the shop floor and glean details about its pedigree, they can collaborate more effectively with colleagues in design, product development, manufacturing and sourcing. For example, say an account executive is interested in a new dress style he or she sees moving through a factory via a look into the SFC solution. Observing all the steps and inputs, the sales pro recognises that the style is too complex and costly to meet a discount retail customer’s target price point. But with visibility into integrated SFC and PLM data from previous seasons, he or she may be able to identify a similar, simpler style and open a dialog about whether that style could be refreshed to sell to the discounter.

During the season, integrated SFC and ERP also give sales teams a chance to make changes and improve sales. For example, perhaps smaller sizes in a style are not selling as anticipated but larger sizes are selling very well. The salesperson can access SFC data to determine if the next order batch has been cut. If it has not, he or she can work with other teams and the supplier to change the purchase order so that a greater quantity of larger sizes is produced and shipped.

In conclusion, with consumers hungry for fresh fashion and retailers wading ever more carefully into merchandise commitments, it is the perfect time to consider how your business can benefit from greater visibility to the shop floor and integration from design to delivery. Contact CGS today for a free ROI analysis and learn how you can leverage BlueCherry® Shop Floor Control.

About the sponsor: CGS works hand-in-hand with clients in the world’s most admired companies, developing powerful, hard-working solutions that strengthen and fortify the fundamental business processes that empower them to take on present and future challenges and opportunities.