Shop Floor Control Software: Managing Apparel Manufacturing Labor and Workflow

1. What exactly is Shop Floor Control Software? Who needs it, and what does it do?


Anyone in the business of manufacturing apparel can use shop floor control software to track the progress of sewing production both at the work-in-process as well as at the work team or individual laborer levels. It allows you to track virtually anything measurable throughout a sewing operation, down to the granular level. Operational efficiencies are improved because you get constant feedback about what each employee is doing with his time, how many defects have been encountered during any period of time, as well as how much bonus pay is being generated as a result of any person or team in the process meeting or exceeding their targets or quotas. The list of metrics and financial information you can gather in real time go on and on.


2. This still sounds a bit esoteric to me. Do you mind if we use a hypothetical example. Please think of an ideal apparel manufacturing candidate for the implementation of shop floor control system. Who are they, how big are they, what do they produce, and what will the SFC system look like once it is implemented?  How will it be used? What will it measure, and in the end, how will productivity and quality improved?


I remember one client who was in the business of manufacturing menswear. They had over 200 employees, 100 of whom were employed on the shop floor. They were cutting, sewing and trimming the fabric which was converted to finished product. The biggest problem this client encountered wasn’t with spreading and cutting but with sewing. The sewers were not under an incentive program that could be measured or quantified because they didn’t have any immediate feedback on their productivity. They were using paper printouts and reports, keeping unstructured tallies in a number of non-uniform ways, and then spending valuable time filling out and turning paper progress reports into the accounting department or operations department at the end of the day. The problem wasn’t always keeping track of how many pieces each individual sewed each day, even when using an archaic system. However, because there were so many moving pieces, it became hard to track how fast each person worked during any given period of the day, to track the quality of their work, or even follow the finished goods they produced into quality control or even the inventory stacks. In the end, management really had no measure of real-time productivity or the overall quality of workmanship. They had no view of how WIP traveled the course into finished goods. You just didn’t get a real picture of what was happening from a management and control level. Maybe you had workers that were producing/sewing high counts, so they were earning their bonuses, but sadly they were costing the company a lot because they were producing so many defects. In the end, one of the magic pieces of a good shop floor control system is it tells you not only how many pieces any laborer or work group sews in a day, but it also tells you how many quality pieces are being sewn in a day. I say this without going into all the time and money that can be saved when you have a real-time system in place which instantly reports all sewing data to finance and operations as it is actually happening.


To go on and answer your question regarding what does a shop floor control system look like and how does it work:  I can best answer this question by first describing the antiquated sewing operations SFC, or Shop Floor Control,  is best suited to replace. These sewing operations are generally found on a single manufacturing/sewing floor. There may be more than 100 laborers involved, consisting of an array of individual sewing operators, or teams of operators, and they are working at a variety of sewing and cutting machines. Sometimes the cut parts they are touching arrive at one end of the floor and then they flow from work station to workstation until the finished product is finally produced at the end of the line. There can be dozens of stop points, depending on the complexity of production. And there can be a lot of specialized stations, for embroidery, tagging, labeling, you name it. I’ve seen floors with over 100 work stations. The point is that even small sewing operations can be very complex. How do you keep track of such things with pencil and paper, white boards, or even rudimentary computer systems? You really can’t if you aren’t using an integrated technology, and that is my main point. Take for instance a shirt. It might pass through five or six work stations at a minimum. The sleeves are sewn on at one, the collars at another, the buttons at another, it may be specially embroidered, and then finally the tags and labels are placed. A lot of hands touch a single shirt, and in cases where over 100 operators are involved on a single floor, thousands of unique shirts may be produced each day. In such cases, with so many moving parts and people involved, how do you know who does what and when? Who is really producing quality sewing work and where is it being done, right now? What about cases where employees are sick or on vacation or temp labor is involved? Is this causing a problem? When you find defects, who made them? If production is down, where are the bottlenecks? Manual sewing operations are very difficult to manage, especially in real time.


So, you can see, having a software package and system in place that tracks your work in process from sewer to sewer, from station to station, in real time, as it is converted to a final product is quite an improvement on the old school sewing operations. With a proper system in place you have a detailed view of what is happening, in real time, down to the granular level. You have exact counts of where each sewn item is in the process. You can see the bottlenecks, be they lags occurring due to workstation or quality defects. This isn’t the only problem. Even when you know you need software to help track your sewing operations, putting it in place can be a problem. A lot of sewing operations are conducted in old buildings.


3. I can definitely see that software which allows you to track sewn product in real time can lead to great increases in efficiencies, but you bring up a point I want to explore. Why would the physical conditions of a sewing operation be a problem with implementing a good SFC system? What are the workarounds?


Very simply, a lot of sewing operations are in old buildings and they aren’t wired for modern internet or data connectivity. The great news is that good SFC packages let you put an affordable Wi-Fi box (or tablet or device) on every station or sewing machine. No wires are required. This is great news because wireless systems let you rearrange your sewing floor without tripping over any wires or wasting any time re-setting up any work stations. Setup and changes to the sewing work floor are pretty seamless, and the client doesn’t end up wasting time on the phone with the software vendor’s call center unless there really is a material change being made.

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