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OM in the News: Reengineering Apparel Production in the U.S.

March 16, 2015
180 miles: Most of American Giant’s production process—harvesting the cotton, then knitting, dyeing, napping, rolling, cutting, and sewing it—takes place within a few hours’ drive in North and South Carolina.

180 miles: Most of American Giant’s production process—harvesting the cotton, then knitting, dyeing, napping, rolling, cutting, and sewing it—takes place within a few hours’ drive in North and South Carolina.

American Giant is not yet a household name in the apparel market, like Levi’s or Gap, but it is proving that American manufacturing can be profitable again, reversing a devastating economic trend. No U.S. manufacturing industry has suffered more from outsourcing than textiles and apparel: The domestic workforce has shrunk by 3/4 since the 1990s.

American Giant is an e-commerce phenomenon: its clothes, sold only via the web, are comfortable, flattering, durable, and popular with a fanatical fan base. The company’s products routinely sell out and can be back-ordered for weeks. Located in the Carolinas, American Giant is also reengineering apparel production. Fast Company (March, 2015) rates the firm as one of the 50 most innovative in the U.S.

Traditional garment manufacturing works like this: A worker sits at a sewing machine all day long, making the same seam over and over. When she fills up a bin, someone comes along and moves the batch to the next seamstress, who adds on her piece, a process that continues until the garments are complete. Because some operations take more time than others—and people work at different paces—garments naturally tend to pile up. Seamstresses spend roughly 80% of their time performing tasks other than stitching.

In American Giant’s “Team Sew” approach, adapted from Toyota’s manufacturing process, the seamstresses work on their feet, performing multiple operations and collaborating on the fly.  They move along a horseshoe-shaped bank of workstations, seemingly in constant motion. When one falls behind on an operation, a teammate comes over to help her catch up. Above the team, a scoreboard displays how many items they complete and how that compares to efficiency targets. They are paid just over $13 an hour, almost twice North Carolina’s minimum wage of $7.25.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Team Sew” approach?

2. Why is it so hard for companies to manufacturing clothing in the U.S.?

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