Mitch: Hi, I am the Chief Executive of Unionwear. We’re a small company, about 120 people, and I didn’t necessarily support the Lean program, I was the Lean program. I lived and breathed the Lean program. I was the point of contact for our consultant, and I still am. I would say the number one thing that I do at our company is to enforce the principles of Lean and make sure that they work.
Gerry talked a little about unions. One connection between unions and Lean is that without Lean manufacturing, we would not be able to afford union labor. Union labor is expensive, but it’s expensive because union people earn a living wage, and they have great benefits. They’re happy employees, and happy employees make productive employees. Productive and happy employees who want to do well for the company to follow the principles of Lean manufacturing.
I was introduced to your organization when I spoke here about five years ago at the request of Dave Hollinger from the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP). We went through a Lean transformation between 2004 and 2006, and then we bought a bag factory, which was the complete opposite of Lean. It took Dave’s help and all of our experience, but at the end of that process, we took a factory that was in 60,000 square feet with about 80 workers, and we fit them into an 8,000 square foot space with 60 workers, and we doubled our production in our first year.
That’s the kind of experience that we had with Lean. So, let me tell you a little about our company. We manufacture bags, such as backpacks, handbags, and tote bags, and we do a lot of military business. Homeland Security is one of our biggest clients. We manufacture ammunition pouches for the army and garment bags for the air force. We also have a very big hat business, and it’s the reason we’re called Unionwear—unions are a very big part of our clientele. We are the only union shop in the country that produces baseball hats, and one of four that produces bags. Just imagine every Teamster who steps out of a truck wearing a Teamster logo hat—that’s us! That’s still a big part of our hat business.
We are ten miles from NYC in Newark. We have union labor, which means that for all of our product categories, we probably have the highest labor costs in the world. A lot of people ask me how we compete with China. We can’t compete with China on wages, so we compete by creating value. That’s our focus, and it’s one of the key aspects of Lean. A lot of people have misconceptions about creating value, and I just want to say a few things here to clear up some of those misconceptions.
Manufacturers can’t create value by building up work in process, because parts have no value until clients are going to pay for them. Manufacturers can’t create value by cutting labor costs. You can cut your unit cost on a product by using Lean tools, but unless you redeploy that labor into creating more value, you’re not creating value. Manufacturers can’t create value by focusing on profits—using productivity as a tool to increase profits is just the other side of the labor cost equation, and a manufacturer in New Jersey cannot compete on labor. As a manufacturer, you only create value when your finished product sells for more than it costs you. Otherwise, you’re not creating value; you’re just moving it around.
I say this because a lot of people think creating value is just making work, without necessarily making finished products, but you’re better off keeping people home. Manufacturers can’t create value by getting workers to work faster, because if they’re working fast but not adding value to our product, they’re actually destroying value.
We’ve survived by developing a single-minded focus on creating value, and this Lean transformation that we went through, nine years ago now, was just the beginning. Staying Lean, however, is a constant, never-ending struggle against human nature that consultants like to call continuous improvement. Continuous improvement means that our Lean team—the team of supervisors that reviews all of our Lean procedures—tries every day to create more value with the same people. When we measure productivity, we measure only finished products, and after nine years of continuous improvement across the board, we have tripled our productivity.
At the same time, the cost of imported textile products has more than doubled, so our products went from being five and often ten times higher in price than imported products to being in the same ball-park. Our bags maybe 20-25% more expensive on average, which is in the range of a premium that people are willing to pay for Made in USA products. That’s part of the reason we’ve been able to grow from 40 employees in 2004 to about 130 right now.
WHAT TRIGGERED THE LEAN TRANSFORMATION?
I started Unionwear in ‘92 when I saw a niche that was not being served— sewing to markets that value the country of origin enough to pay a significant premium for those products with, for example, a “Made in USA” label. There are a lot of markets, such as political campaigns, that will only buy products made in USA. I started the business in ’92. From ‘94 until about 2004, we were competitive with the rest of the country, and we were really just focusing on the Made in USA and Union-made markets. In 2004, New Jersey passed a law to raise its minimum wage, and then we were no longer ahead of the rest of the country.
We were not paying people minimum wage, but we weren’t paying people right off the street with no experience eight or nine dollars an hour, either, and that’s where we would have to be pretty quick, so we were looking for a way to stay competitive with places like Georgia. In 2004, we calculated that an entry-level worker in a non-union shop in Georgia could make about five dollars an hour, whereas an entry-level worker in the union shop in New Jersey was being paid about $11 an hour with the benefits. We were unable to compete nationally, and we were looking for a kind of a magic bullet to solve this problem. That’s when I stumbled upon one of NJMEP’s Lean 101 simulations.
The Lean 101 simulation is a simulated clock factory—an eight-hour program run by NJMEP. In the beginning, a lot of senior professionals who think they know everything, myself included, sit down, and work in teams. Everyone’s very competitive, and they try to make the highest number of clocks in the way that they know. Lean principles are introduced throughout the day. In the first hour, your team might make 15 clocks, but after a day of Lean training, you might make 300 per hour. It’s a really great program! I highly recommend it to anybody, and when I came back from that program, I looked around at my factory. All of a sudden, I was angry. I couldn’t believe all this stuff that I hadn’t noticed for the past twelve years. All I could see when I came back was non-value-added work. I saw people spending fifteen minutes looking for a pair of scissors, people waiting for their boss to get off the phone, people sitting there while their machine was down, people desperately looking for a thread, people building work-in-process inventory, people manually measuring every single garment to make sure they did the job right. They were working very hard, very diligently—but they weren’t adding value to the product.
Those are all things that I can’t put on a client’s invoice, so if I get rid of them, that’s bottom-line profit right there. We figured out pretty quickly how to calculate where we stood—we just did time studies of how people would work at 100% efficiency and compared that to how much time they were actually working. We found that people were adding value to a product about 20 percent of the time, for about two of their working hours. During the other six hours, they were working just as hard, they just weren’t adding value.
Our floor supervisors had been focusing on problems like people talking, sneaking calls on their cell phones, or going to the bathroom. Those things added up to maybe ten minutes of unproductive time, and here we are—not adding value for six hours! The supervisors’ focus was completely off-base. We’d brought in consultants and their focus was to measure our labor in minutes: a tennis shirt might take 23 minutes of labor to produce when we first add it, and by introducing all these attachments and methods, they could get that down to 20 minutes at best. That would be a home run for the consultants, but they weren’t even considering the other 40 minutes in each hour that people weren’t sewing at all.
So, we never really touched on a non-value-added work. We pretty quickly hired Dave Hollinger through NJMEP to come in. He had absolutely no garment industry experience; in our first meeting with him, I brought our plant manager, who’d been in the textile industry for about 40 years. When we sat together, and Dave said he had no garment industry experience, Mike, the plant manager, said “I don’t see how you can help us to sew faster.”
Dave replied, “I have no intention of helping you sew faster. My experience is eliminating all the work that you do when you are not sewing. It’s always the same, whether you’re in food processing or you’re manufacturing auto parts.” So we gave him a small job (to kind of prove himself ) before we invested a lot of money in it. We asked him to improve our setup time in embroidery.
Our embroidery manager estimated that we were spending about 20 minutes between orders, taking some threads out of the embroidery machine, and putting new threads in. As Dave sat there on the first day, he said, “No, it’s actually taking you more like three hours between orders—20 minutes was what it said on the spreadsheet when you bought the machine.” So we took a look at why it was taking three hours, and the first problem was our embroidery manager from China. Her floor people were mostly from Ecuador, some of whom spoke English pretty well. She would take our orders and write on them gray, forest green, navy blue to indicate thread colors they were to use. She gave these papers to the workers, who would then walk out to the shelves, where they saw boxes that said cement and canary and pewter and lilac. They had no idea what was gray and what was green; they had to open every box, and then when they found a gray, it was never the right one, so they got into a habit of bringing back six grays at a time and asking the manager which one to use. She would look at the boxes and if they were lucky, she’d choose one of them. The workers then went back to the shelves. Each box held 12 spools, but the machines embroidered 20 spools at a time, so they’d have to find another box of the same color. They’d bring the two boxes to the machine and then move on to the next color.
There are usually three or four colors in a design, so three hours later, we are finally ready to start the embroidery. That was one example of non-value-added work, so the first thing we did was take all of our 1500 colors of embroidery thread out of the boxes. We got rid of the names and replaced them with color numbers. We put them in clear zip-lock bags, and then we just created color-coded bins, kind of like a rainbow. Now when the manager gives a worker an order, they walk over, pick out three colors in ten minutes, and put them right on the machine.
That was the first thing that we did; we hired Dave Hollinger and his Lean team right away. We actually got a grant from the Department of Labor to keep them on for about two years, and during that time we made about a hundred improvements in only the baseball hat factory and our embroidery department. Of those hundred improvements, probably 95 of them are still there, and we’re committed to keeping them there for a while.
Baseball caps are very much cookie-cutter products. Every day we make 15 totally different hats, and they’re all custom, but they all have the same elements, and they all go through the same raveling process, so it’s very easy to put Lean principles in place there. That same principle that we applied to the embroidery threads works as well for plastic wraps or fabric. Some of the biggest gains cost us no money and were very easy to figure out and put in place. For example, workers wasted most time just looking for things because the place was such a mess. We went through our 5 Sigma exercise, and we ended up getting rid of every table and every drawer in the factory. We put everything up on walls where it was all visible.
When we put things on walls, we did shadow boards, so if someone took a certain dye or a pair of scissors off the wall, there was a shadow exactly where it had been. They would know exactly where to put it back and didn’t put it in the wrong place. We then made a small investment in tools for every single worker and drilled holes in their sewing machine tables for things like scissors, tweezers, screwdrivers, and things that they previously spent a lot of time looking for. On average, they spent 20 to 30 minutes a day looking for tools, and workers hoarded them because our supply manager charged them if they lost something. As a result of the hoarding (and people having to look for tools), we spent way more in labor than we would have lost in theft.
We got rid of all the marginal junk in the factory. At that time we had 45,000 square feet of space, and when I walked out on the factory floor, there were shelves everywhere. When we got rid of the shelves and clutter, I could see clear across the floor and could see products flow through the factory. That uncovered a lot of other production problems that we didn’t realize we had. It’s amazing how people become blind to things they see every day! I remember when we were doing the 5 Sigma exercise, one operator had a bulky lamp on her sewing table. I was sitting in front of her, watching. Her sewing built up in a pile on one side, and then she’d pick it up, move it around the lamp and drop it in a bin in front of her. Every ten minutes, she had to stop what she was doing to perform this routine. I asked her, do you ever actually use that lamp? And she looked at me and asked: “what lamp?” True story.
We moved sewing machines closer together so the work wouldn’t have to be carried between the machines. Managers in garment industries have traditionally practiced batching—one worker fills a bin with work before pushing it on to the next operation. Eliminating batching definitely gave us the biggest productivity gains. It’s a bit difficult to explain why, but single-unit processing will get you the most bang for the buck in the Lean transformation.
After we’d eliminated batching, we were able to get orders out in three days instead of three weeks, when the order was at the end of the production line. If there was a problem with the order, we could see and correct it early in the process, before the rest of the order was completed. Getting rid of the batching, however, was not without its difficulties. We said, okay we’re getting rid of all the bins now, so instead of a big pile of work behind you, you are just going to get one piece from the person behind you. Isn’t that great? The workers weren’t too sure about that.
The first week without batching, production really slowed down, and it took us some time to realize why. Everyone was afraid we didn’t have any work because they were used to having a huge pile of work behind them. In their previous jobs, they knew that if the plant manager didn’t have enough work, you got laid off. So we started with a written policy telling everyone that we will not lay anybody off due to lack of work, which addressed that concern. Then we started broadcasting our production schedule. We made a huge sign saying we have 32,000 hats in-process right now, and that got the point across. The workers were way more productive than they had been before.
The bigger obstacle was that our plant manager’s management style was based on batching. It’s easy to manage by batching: I give you a big box of something, you do this, and come and get me when you’re done, which could be a day and a half from now. So he gave everybody a bin and sat in his office. He was busy— he was also doing the purchasing— and at any given time there were three people sitting in his office, waiting for him to get off the phone. (There would probably have been more, but he had only three chairs.) He hated the fact that we got rid of batching because then he had to do the planning and had to move around. He gave me an ultimatum: either Lean went, or he would. We decided to stay with Lean, and he made good on his threat and left. He just didn’t want to do this job—he wanted to batch somewhere else, which is what he ended up doing, but as soon as he left, it was like we gained four free full-time employees. The people who had been sitting in his office were suddenly working, and productivity jumped up just from that.
We’re continuing to improve all of our processes. You have to because when you improve one process, something else becomes the bottleneck. Once you improve your productivity, then all of a sudden you’re not sewing fast enough, and then when you start sewing faster, your office and administration become a bottleneck. When you get all that figured out, you can’t make the stuff fast enough again, so we’re just constantly going through and improving productivity in every department.
We learned a lot of lessons that made the transformation easier. One is that the top management has to be involved—maybe not to the extent that I have been, but if top management is not involved, people are afraid to make decisions. For example, I can say it’s okay to throw machinery away, but no one is ever going to throw away a machine unless I’m sitting there. No one is going to restructure a department, and no one is going to change the floor layout. There are obsolete parts that people are afraid to let go of; they just put them in a box somewhere, and it goes under a table. It needs to be thrown out.
Management has to be involved to make sure that that stuff happens in real-time. You also have to share the productivity gains, in order for people to really buy into it—we had bonuses, those bonuses became raises, and the raises became performance incentives, but we’ve always been keen on sharing those productivity gains. That’s how you get your best ideas from other people on the factory floor. Once a critical mass of workers really buys into Lean, it really takes off. The workers inevitably love it—it’s a cleaner work environment, and they’re less fatigued. After about four years, we did Lean training in very small groups. We weren’t sure how much the factory workers would understand it. We found a training video from a consultant up in Massachusetts; it was in Spanish (most of our workers speak Spanish). It showed our employees how most people naturally use the principles of Lean manufacturing in their kitchens, but when they go to work, they throw it all out the window. It’s called Leaning Toast, and I highly recommend it.
So in 2008, we bought this bag factory. It had gone out of business; it was in foreclosure. We basically bought the assets and took most of the employees from East Newark over to Newark. Then we had the challenge of figuring out how to apply Lean in a custom product situation. It was very easy with hats because it’s the same line, but one day we are making backpacks, and the next day we are making safety vests, and there are days when we’re making backpacks, safety vests, tote bags and yarmulkes, and all these different things. We had to figure out how to make that work, so we have a Lean production team that meets twice a week and discusses production planning and production problems. We ended up hiring an engineer from the New Jersey Institute of Technology who does our value stream maps for every single product, and then we determine whether we can fit it into a basic team of sewing machines, or whether we should restructure them into a production line. We almost always determine that it’s faster to just move the machines around. It might take 90 minutes to move the machines, but an order that would have taken five days now takes three and a half. We’ve also found that it’s worthwhile to have dedicated production lines for products that we make only intermittently. When we make safety vests, we get a pretty big order, but then we won’t make them again for six months, and there was always a very long learning curve when we set these production lines up again. We finally said, you know what? Let’s just leave a line in place—the rent is going to be cheaper than paying for that learning curve and spending that non-value added time for every new safety vest order. We’ve done that with a bunch of different products.
Since then we’ve figured out that the better and less expensive way is to map every production line that we set up. Because we didn’t want to keep taking more space, we now keep track of the production line at the end of the order—we take snapshots of everything, make a grid on it, and then when we get that order again, we put it all back into place.
Now that we have a companywide policy of adding value, we aim for five hours a day of adding value. That’s our minimum; we’re usually getting about six hours a day of adding value, and we use the term hours per day because that’s something that our workers all understand. They didn’t necessarily understand percentages. We got a math trainer from MEP to come in, and we found that most of our workers were at a second-grade math level, and they spoke very little English, but they understood the hours per day, and they also understood that adding value for five or six hours per day and getting paid for eight was a great deal.
We’re a small business, and we’ve had an engineer working with us until last year. We found that by focusing on the value stream maps, we were then able to reengineer products that we didn’t think that we could do before. We would make a messenger bag, and that’s the way that messenger bag was made. In an ironic twist, customers were taking their overseas products and sending them to us, asking us to knock them off, because they wanted the products made in America. In many cases, it’s actually less expensive to make the products domestically. One example is a product that requires very expensive fabric, like a leather handbag. A lot of those are made in the USA or in places that have even more expensive labor, like Italy. The leather is going to cost the same or a little more here than in China—it might be $40 in leather here and $6 in labor versus $40 in leather in China and $2 dollars in labor, but at the end of the day, its $46 versus $42, and you end up paying more in shipping and duties for the Chinese product. We’re seeing a lot of big bulky products coming back, like laptop bags with a lot of foam in them, and when we get these products, we’re noticing much unnecessary labor in the products that are made overseas. A lot of it is a vestige from six or eight years ago when labor in China was basically free. It’s not like there was unemployment insurance there—they had to make work for all the factory workers, and so they would have people trimming between the lining and the outside of a bag, something that no one would ever see, or just doing a lot of unnecessary stitching. A lot of bags had seams at the bottom, where makes it absolutely no sense. Why would you put a seam at the bottom of a bag? It’s only going to rip. It would only make sense if you want to throw some extra labor on there.
The first thing that we do when we get one of these restoring jobs is to take the product and re-engineer it so that it will be a better product and look exactly the same. The difference is, if we make it the way that you want us to make it, it’s going to be $85. If we make it the way that we want to make it, it will be $15. It’s really that much of a difference. Then we’re able to be a lot more competitive without having to exploit workers, without trying to compete on labor costs. We’re basically competing on engineering.
Interviewer 1: Since the Lean transformation, how’s your turnover been?
Mitch: Our turnover is virtually nil. One of the advantages of being a union shop is that health insurance is very inexpensive for union shops. It’s something that we offer all of our workers. Few of the other sewing factories— actually none of them in our area—offer health insurance, so workers will come to work for us because they know we offer it, and once they get it, they don’t want to leave. In fact, during that whole Lean time, the only turnover we had was the plant manager. You would think that implementing Lean would result in fewer workers, but in reality, it lowered our costs and made us more competitive. It enabled us to ship products faster, and as a result, we ended up with more business. With more business, we had more scale, which enabled us to lower our costs even more. Lean really drove the growth of the business and the growth in the number of employees, so turnover has not been an issue.
Interviewer 2: Can you give me an idea of what the competitive landscape is like? For making hats or something like that, who are your competitors?
Mitch: Well, with hats, we don’t compete so much with overseas. A baseball cap has a ton of labor in it and very low material costs. Because it’s almost all labor, we’re still probably twice as much as an overseas hat—we used to be about ten times as much—but still, there are very few clients who will spend that for a product because it’s made in the United States. We’re able to be competitive with bags. There are four other union shops out there, and so we compete with them for union work. We just did an order of 6,000 backpacks for the Federal Government Employees Union and 4,000 backpacks for the Firefighters Union Convention. There’s a larger number of domestic, military, and homeland security and government contractors that we bid against and really, there’s enough business to go around.
Now, however, the garment industry is really starting to come back, for bags in particular, and because of our location close to Newark, we’re seeing a big increase in business. We met with The Limited who came out and did a factory tour yesterday. We actually did work for Victoria’s Secret two years ago, and it was a very interesting experience. They decided then that they wanted to make five to ten percent of their products in the United States. We were doing their pink tote bags, and they did not have a plan to deal with a domestic factory. We took the order—we were really excited about the business—and we had to ship everything to Hong Kong first because that’s where all their testing facilities were. They did not have any facilities domestically that could test for the kinds of toxins that were coming out of China. We couldn’t prove that this stuff didn’t have of these toxins in it, so we just sent everything to Hong Kong. Now they’ve gotten their infrastructure in place and they’re going to start sourcing some things domestically.
There are also a lot of organizations that really focus on labor content. An example is the college bookstore market. The Federal Labor Association began as a monitoring agency for bookstores to make sure that colleges weren’t licensing their logos to companies that produced goods in sweatshops. That fair labor organization is the same one that Apple hired to monitor the iPhone factories, and now Nike has hired it to monitor their factories overseas, but the college market has a very strong commitment to labor content. When you go to a college bookstore, you will see a lot of products that are made domestically, but they don’t advertise it anywhere. You don’t see a lot of college students rushing out to buy something because it’s union-made, but in reality, a lot of the products in the bookstores are actually union-made in the United States, because the bookstores’ standards for labor are so strict.
Because of the premium for domestic products is shrinking, different types of organizations buy domestically now because it’s not as expensive for them to be consistent. Manufacturers would be the first one—GM and Ford, food processing companies like Budweiser—because they’re using Made in the USA in their advertising, they don’t want stuff out in the marketplace that has Made in China labels, but then you also have organizations like NPR and Greenpeace that are buying products Made in USA to avoid any potential conflict concerning sweatshops, pollution and huge carbon footprint associated with shipping. It’s becoming a lot easier for us to compete, because there are a lot more clients who are willing to pay our price, and I feel that trend is only going in one direction.
Interviewer 3: What percentage of your goods is for resale, and what percentage is just for organizations just to distribute as gifts, bonuses, etc.?
Mitch: Right now, it’s probably about 40% of government work, mostly uniforms, and bags. We do a lot of hats for Homeland Security, coast guard, FEMA organizations, etc., and then, of the balance, it’s probably about 20% garment industry, which is for resale. That’s really the only resale stuff that we do. As for licensed goods, even a company like Harley Davidson, which has a strong commitment to domestic manufacturing, made licensing deals several years ago, and they have lost control over the sourcing content of those things, so if you buy a Harley hat, it will still say Made in China. GM is not really licensing their logo except through NASCAR, and that stuff is made in China, so we’re not doing a lot of licensing business. It’s mostly the garment industry, and the balance is mostly promotional work for those kinds of companies and unions.
Interviewer 4: Where are you located?
Mitch: We’re in Newark, we’re right off of Greenfield Avenue in North Newark.
Interviewer 5: You mentioned that now you’re at about six hours of value-added work a day, and originally you had a little about two hours of value-added work a day. What was the reaction of both the union employees and the union as a whole when you started turning up the level a little bit?
Mitch: They wanted to make sure they were included in the gains, but in the backdrop of all this, there used to be maybe two dozen union shops in the area. Now we’re the only hat factory left out of four, and during that time our union was going through a lot of changes. They finally told us to do whatever we needed to do to stay in business; they saw that the workers were really happy that we were increasing and not decreasing employment. It was a non-issue with the union. In fact, I was even surprised to find out that unions, in general, had problems with Lean manufacturing. I found that out after attending a labor conference—apparently, it’s a big issue in China, where labor activists were fighting against Lean manufacturing. I learned, though, that’s because they weren’t sharing the gains with the workers; they were just trying to come up with ways to get more product out of the same number of people. Lean does not work in a top-down environment. It only works when people cooperate—you can’t force somebody to work smart, you can only force somebody to work harder.
Interviewer 6: You said you had achieved gains when you got rid of the batching and moved to a continuous flow environment. I’m kind of curious, did you run into problems where some people on the line worked faster than others, and if so, how did you deal with it?
Mitch: All the time! We balance our teams by doing a value stream map, and we determine that maybe this is a 30-second job, this is a 60-second job and this is a 90-second job. We look forward, and the job that takes the longest is the limiting factor. With a baseball hat, it takes about a minute and a half to sew the visor on perfectly straight; that’s the limiting factor in baseball hats. It takes a minute and a half, so then we say okay, we want to give everybody else here a minute and a half worth of work, which might mean combining smaller jobs. With experience, you figure out what kind of buffer can go between jobs. Maybe you put it in another machine. You’ve got to have people cross-trained to move to that second machine when there’s a problem, but we tend to put the slowest and most unpredictable people at the beginning and the end of the line because that’s how you can make up for your biggest mistakes. If someone is slow or new, you can put an extra person at the beginning of the line a lot more easily than you can put him in the middle. You can always take people from the beginning of the production line and move them to the end if you see things are backing up there.
Here’s what you don’t want to happen, and it’s part of human nature: When there is a backup in production, you notice that everybody behind that person starts to slow down. When I want to determine what is imbalanced in a factory, I walk around. If I see two people standing up and moving around, I know there’s a problem. I’m not paying people to walk around. We took the time to put these machines in the right place, so we did something wrong—the workers didn’t do anything wrong. If I see a big pile of work in process, a machine is down, somebody didn’t show up for work, or we planned or estimated this wrong. People got used to be looking for piles, so they learned how to stay out of trouble by slowing down, not creating the piles. That’s why I say that continuous improvement is just a constant struggle against human nature.
The Reshoring Initiative and SEAMS, the domestic textile manufacturing association, presented their inaugural Manufacturing Reshoring Award to Unionwear for bringing cut and sew jobs back to the USA. Unionwear’s 180 workers in Newark, NJ make baseball hats, backpacks, and other bags for the promotional products, fashion, and uniform industries.
Unionwear’s technological innovations have leveled the playing field with imports by highlighting small batch, quick turn manufacturing. Unionwear’s predictive configuration tool at http://www.trillionhats.com allows it to sell custom made products using a traditional webstore experience rather than a cumbersome online configurator, while its mobile ERP platform automates purchasing, production scheduling, manufacturing, and shipping. The result is “made to order” as seamless as ordering from Amazon.
The baseball cap industry’s mass relocation to China since the 1990’s, and Unionwear’s success in keeping manufacturing stateside throughout, was thoroughly explored earlier this month in the three part serial podcast documentary “American Icon” on iHeartRadio’s Red Pilled America podcast.
The Reshoring Award was presented at SEAMS’ annual conference in Savannah,GA on May 9, 2019. At the event, Contempora Fabrics won the Textile Reshoring Award and Mara Hoffman Designs won the Brand Reshoring Award. SEAMS members had reasons to celebrate, with domestic textile manufacturing showing strong, sustainable growth to $70 billion and over 100,000 jobs, numbers that will continue to climb due to the recent tariffs and the upcoming presidential election, when interest in “USA Made” traditionally peaks.
American apparel manufacturer Unionwear is surviving the global marketplace thanks to its Rootstock cloud ERP system.
Apparel is increasingly an overseas business. Studies show that only about 5% of manufactured apparel is produced in the United States. Custom apparel and promotional product manufacturer Unionwear, based in Newark, New Jersey, is one such manufacturer that has sustained operations in the United States. While it employs approximately 120 unionized workers in a high-priced industrial corridor, Unionwear has been able to compete globally partly because it has embraced cloud ERP through its Rootstock software.
The company’s journey into the cloud has its roots in lean manufacturing. Mitch Cahn, Unionwear’s CEO, and his team knew that in order to succeed in a challenging environment, they needed to differentiate themselves from their competitors’ business practices. Lean manufacturing — the methodical approach to eliminating waste and reducing manufacturing costs — was the silver bullet the company needed.
As part of its continuous improvement, Unionwear was ready to adopt an ERP system designed for its manufacturing environment. After a search, the team found that Rootstock Corp.’s cloud ERP software was scalable enough to accommodate Unionwear’s operations and production needs, according to Cahn.
The cloud-based ERP approach afforded fast and easy implementations for the company, with no major IT infrastructure investment needed and a built-in ability to easily expand. This was the perfect fit for Unionwear’s long-term goals: increase customer satisfaction while maintaining a stable expenditure of resources for the manufacturing and production architecture.
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While the Rootstock platform came with a wide variety of ready to use modules, Unionwear’s focus was on using its inventory management. The company’s primary raw material fabric and varied customer demands require that Unionwear use a multitude of colors and types of fabric, Cahn explained. It is not only critical to plan precisely the amount of material required for production, but to know exactly what is available for production at any given moment. The industry is, in general, a low-margin business. Any time spent looking for material or having extra material laying around that may never meet the needs of a future customer does not fulfill Unionwear’s mission of creating value.
Efficiency was also a critical component of Unionwear’s cloud strategy — specifically, efficiency in finished goods inventory. Unionwear only measures efficiency in the production of finished goods, meaning products that are ready to ship to — and bring value to — the customer. Any material and work in process does not equate to customer value, according to Cahn. With Rootstock, the company was able to calculate the efficiency of its manufacturing effort based on internally-developed standards that measure when the product is complete and ready to ship.
Unionwear’s future plans continue to explore the possibilities of cloud ERP and what it can do to make manufacturing leaner. For example, the company is considering using Rootstock’s reporting tools and utilities, as well as different cost accounting methods. The capability is there for the ERP system’s usefulness to grow as the company grows; as Cahn said, this is “a tremendous advantage and opportunity.” With its ERP in the cloud, Unionwear is poised to be a global competitor for years to
Jim Romeo (www.JimRomeo.net) is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Virginia.
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A couple of years ago, Unionwear, a clothing and accessories manufacturer-based in Newark, N.J., employed a patchwork of systems to run its business.
Headquarters used Sage Pro accounting software to manage the books, while individual plants used Microsoft Access and Excel spreadsheets to track manufacturing activities. Unionwear, a 120-employee company, lacked a unified, enterprise-wide system.
“We were running a number of different systems — and leaving a lot of gaps,” said Mitch Cahn, president of Unionwear.
Calculating Costs for Each Run
One such gap was the lack of a perpetual inventory system. Unionwear updated its inventory balance periodically rather than continuously. As a result, the company needed to conduct a cycle count every time it wanted to begin a production run, Cahn says.
In addition, the manufacturer didn’t maintain a database of costing information, so cost calculations had to be done over and over again.
Duplication of effort was one issue. Integration, or the lack of it, was another. The absence of enterprise automation meant that shop floor scheduling didn’t take manufacturing capacity into account. And there was no integration with Unionwear’s Salesforce.com CRM system.
Against this backdrop, Unionwear decided to deploy an ERP system. The company looked into an on-premises approach, but determined that such a move would require a significant hardware upgrade. Cloud-based ERP became the solution of choice. In addition to the upgrade cost avoidance, the idea of having a system that would be updated regularly instead of annually was another selling point, according to Cahn.
Unionwear’s experience with Salesforce — the company went live on the cloud-based CRM in 2013 — was another factor.
“One of the main things that sold us on cloud was the Salesforce Platform,” Cahn said.
The company’s next step was to look into ERP offerings built on that platform. Unionwear selected Rootstock Software’s manufacturing cloud ERP and went live on the software in January 2014.
Alan Pelz-Sharpe, research director, Social Business Applications, at 451 Research, said Salesforce, and CRM, in general, has become a common route companies take to broader automation. CRM contains the names, addresses and order details of a company’s customers, creating a foundation for additional applications.
“Building your application infrastructure around those records makes logical sense for a lot of people,” Pelz-Sharpe said.
Made in The USA
Unionwear manufactures and embroiders caps, backpacks, workwear and other items in the U.S., bucking the general trend of off-shore textile manufacturing. The company launched in 1992, when Cahn purchased the assets of London Cap Co., a Jersey City, N.J.-based baseball cap contractor. Unionwear has since brought on board the machinery and personnel of other failed garment manufacturers, most recently acquiring the assets of a backpack and bag manufacturer in 2007.
Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said Unionwear isn’t alone in its domestic focus, noting that a few apparel companies now concentrate all their manufacturing operations in the U.S.
“There has been, in the last three years, a small resurgence in domestic manufacturing in apparel after many years of decline,” Herman said. “We see the trend continuing.”
Unionwear, for its part, has adopted a regimen of continuous improvement and lean manufacturing to make a go of domestic manufacturing, cultivating a niche in small-batch customization. The ERP system helps enable this strategy.
“The automation is critical,” Cahn said. “Every dollar of indirect labor that automation replaces is savings that goes right to the bottom line.”
Small-batch customization provides a favorable outlet for domestic manufacturers, since overseas manufacturers typically focus on churning out larger lots of items.
Herman said companies such as Unionwear that specialize in short-run production can be much more responsive to customers if they make their products in the U.S. as opposed to Asia or other offshore locations.
But cost efficiency in this line of business can be hard to achieve.
“Small-batch customization comes with a high level of overhead and that overhead is basically order processing and all the paperwork associated with an order,” Cahn said.
The amount of paperwork to process an order is the same, whether an order is for 12 units or 12,000 units, Cahn noted. Automation, however, reduces the paperwork burden, increasing efficiency and making smaller orders economically feasible.
Cahn said the task of creating a bill of materials might take one hour of time for a $50-per-hour engineer to complete. Automating the bill of materials creation process eliminates that cost. And while saving $50 is not a big deal on a $50,000 order, the impact is much greater on a $500 job.
“I probably wouldn’t touch the $500 order before the automation,” Cahn said.
Cahn said most of the Rootstock components it has rolled out thus far, along with some Unionwear-built features, have made small-batch customization more economical.
Specific areas of ERP impact include stock control. Rootstock has imposed a structure on the inventory management task, according to Cahn. The software’s inventory feature gives Unionwear a “really good grasp” of inventory levels and needs in real time at any point in time, according to Cahn.
As for financial impact, Rootstock has contributed to a $225,000 reduction in inventory in its first year of use, Cahn said. He said apparel manufacturers tend to order more material than then need to ensure that they don’t run out of fabric when filling an order. The danger, however, is that a manufacturer will order far too much material, which will turn up in the year-end inventory count. At Unionwear, the Rootstock inventory module helps the company keep a close watch on the materials it orders.
Improved inventory control effects other functions within Unionwear. For example, feedback from the inventory system helps Unionwear adjust its costing methodology.
“We have a much tighter control over all aspects of our business,” Cahn said.
ERP also provides a greater degree of flexibility. Raw material data in the Rootstock database lets Unionwear tap into existing resources rather than purchase new supplies. For instance, if a new order requires a certain color of thread that Unionwear lacks, it can search the database for a close match.
“In the past, if we didn’t have it we would order it,” Cahn said. “Now, we can look through raw materials and make substitutions.”
Unionwear continues to rollout Rootstock modules as well as its own Salesforce-built features. Cahn said the company is easing into Rootstock’s scheduling and capacity planning module. That capability will let the company look at new orders and, based on existing capacity, determine whether the orders can be produced on time. If the timeframe can’t be met, Rootstock’s “drag and drop” visual interface lets planners move capacity around from one production line to another or reschedule earlier orders to
meet the delivery target, Cahn said.
“I can keep moving orders around until we are confident we can produce everything we have sold on a timely basis,” he said.
Unionwear is also using a reporting feature it created using Salesforce’s reporting engine. The company’s production efficiency reporting capability pulls production and costing information from Rootstock and labor hours from Unionwear’s payroll system to gauge worker efficiency.
Also in the works: a mobile technology deployment for production floor workers. The plan is to let workers use any Wi-Fi enabled device to report production data including yield estimates and actual fabric usage. In addition, shop floor personnel will be able to view work instructions, scheduling, and other information on the mobile apps, Cahn said.
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 20 years. His areas of focus include mobile app development, health IT, cloud computing, government IT and distribution channels.
Why Lean Manufacturing Needs Cloud ERP:
It’s about 10 years since we had our first lean implementation here. It wasn’t until last year that we were able to put the pieces together because we needed to wait for the software to hit the clouds. Legacy systems are really too expensive and too clunky for a company of this size to be able to implement a robust ERP and we wanted something with which we would be able to grow to four times our size.
We also want something that we can add on to if we want to do things like track production, raw material, and efficiency on the factory floor; not all of our production employees use computers but all of them use smartphones and with a cloud based system like Rootstock we can have apps put on to smart phones that our production employees can use to track production, to track receiving, track cutting, track efficiency and things of that nature in real time. We can use that real time data for sales. We can also use, we can also integrate our website with rootstock and populate our product line using materials and processes that we already have costed, have that information flow to the factory using API’s and other new technologies and have our MRP system purchase goods, have work travelers and work tickets and production planning done without having to use any indirect labor or admin staff.
How Cloud ERP Reduces costs:
One of the things we have been able to use Rootstock to do to save cost is to really get a handle on our raw material inventory. We are able to make substitutions of raw materials in bills of material; so that if we are out of this swivel hook we can substitute a different swivel , take a look at what kind of inventory we have, recommends certain kinds of materials to our clients based on availability.
If sales people make recommendations of materials based on availability and cost and it will reduce waste and sting on operations tremendously.
In the future with ERP and the internet of things, we will be able to take orders online and use ecommerce and do many stages of our manufacturing using robotics, picking components and materials, using robotics to put them into bins, using apps to give workers instructions what to do with those bins and tracking production of them.