One of the key challenges in apparel retail sector is potential out-of-stock issue if a company caters to small quantity order and it becomes a larger issue when demand increases suddenly. Filling up inventories quickly is an arduous task, using traditional process. The inventory waste is of course necessary to be reduced but, for most of the brands and manufacturers, it is simply difficult to predict which style will sell in which colour, sizes and quantities by the time the product hits the retail store shelves. With COVID-19 hitting more uncertainties, the challenges of excess inventories are worsening.
This whole scenario leads to reduced margins for the stakeholders, less options for the end-consumers and high adverse impact on environment. Alibaba addressed this key problem with its new manufacturing model that starts with consumers, on contrary to the ongoing process that ends with consumers. The new intelligent factory was unveiled on 17th September at the first annual meeting organised by the Global Lighthouse Network, China at the World Economic Forum.
Changes the new ‘Intelligent Factory’ of Alibaba will bring in the retail and manufacturing landscapes…
Currently, the construction of Rhino Intelligent Factory has been completed along with the completion of digitalisation research centre; intelligent warehouse and distribution centre. More functions and digital capabilities are being put into use step by step such as factory-wide IoT connection; digitalisation of all the production processes; dynamic balance of production lines; flexible switch-over process of production lines; order inserting module with a single button press; and intelligent production scheduling. Once finished, most of the personalised orders can be fulfilled within an hour.
The infrastructure of the factory allows for small-batch orders at low-operating costs and with shorter delivery times; while increasing manufacturing efficiency from 25-30 per cent (for small batch orders) to an average of 55 per cent. Rhino Intelligent Factory has connected Tmall with Taobao – the young selling platforms of Alibaba – in order to realise on-demand production on a large scale, and make the supply system flexible to fulfil a lead time of 7 days regarding any order of 100 apparel products (as MOQ) at least. The lead time is shortened by 75 per cent, inventory is reduced by 30 per cent, and even the water consumption is decreased by 50 per cent as compared with other factories, significantly lowering the manufacturing barriers for SME and MSME firms.
It is also said by the company that the factory’s new working model reduces overhead costs by around 43 per cent. The factory is currently being upgraded to include in-house logistics and warehousing capabilities and, with these technologies in place, the factory will be able to become a complete powerhouse in apparel production covering the entire end-to-end supply chain right from material sourcing to delivery.
Since the launch inception, the factory has collaborated with a hundred of sellers listed on Taobao and Tmall as well as livestreaming broadcasters and streetwear designers, in order to explore and experiment with the new possibilities of apparel manufacturing.
The role of technology in building the factory and contribution of IMB, China…
As Rhino Intelligent Factory is capable of taking individualised small-scale orders, reducing costs and improving efficiency as a highly digitalised factory, behind all these, a less-known fact is that it is a homegrown sewing machinery manufacturer from China that supplies all the key technologies and automated equipment necessary for the establishment of the factory. One of these sewing machine manufacturers is IMB, based in Changzhou, which is a renowned emerging name in denim and shirt automation.
IMB’s ‘intelligent manufacturing makes garment production easier’ mantra greatly coincides with Alibaba’s new manufacturing concept, and that’s the reason IMB has become the main supplier and partner of Alibaba’s strategic project. In the past three years, IMB has strictly abided by the project confidentiality agreement, provided a complete set of automatic denim production lines, completed the installation and debugging of the production lines, and provided rapid response services according to the optimisation requirements.
Chen Xinhua, Chairman of IMB and the company’s Board of Directors, commented by taking an example of the rapid replacement of template, “It usually takes 2 hours for skilled workers of conventional equipment to complete the process but it only takes a few minutes for ordinary workers to use IMB automatic sewing unit products, which alone has increased the efficiency by dozens of times compared to traditional factories.”
It’s worth mentioning here that IMB automatic sewing unit products and equipment have real-time data acquisition function and the same function enables IMB equipment to interact with Alibaba cloud and MAS system throughout the whole process. IMB’s sewing units ensure the sewing data connection in the first-line production process, while providing reliable support for the real-time controllable entire flexible production of Rhino Intelligent Factory.
In future, IMB and Alibaba will further deepen cooperation in intelligent manufacturing and bring more unique experience to consumers, as informed by Chen.
IMB all geared up to enhance manufacturing industry after Alibaba implementation…
Bangladesh is a huge potential market for IMB, China and the company already has strong roots in the country with top denim manufacturers under its clientele. The country is gradually increasing its presence in the retail landscape and this is where IMB has its take on the country. Johan Grieten, Global Sales Director and R&D Advisor, IMB told Apparel Resources, “In the first place, we are talking about 2 different kinds of manufacturing and marketing systems. Most of the Bangladesh factories do have bulk orders. Receiving orders from buyers and producing garments for your own retail channels are entirely different concepts.”
He further stated that the future of Bangladesh, as a part of the system, is fully controlled and balanced manufacturing industry with direct data capturing on the factory floor and Johan names this – ‘the digitalisation of the production process’. “When the management team is aware of what is going on at the production side, then the parameters to optimise the processes are all available with which effective actions can be taken. The progress can be followed up with continuously updating graphics per operation, operator, style, etc. And, this will be the first next step for Bangladeshi apparel manufacturers,” informed Johan.
IMB strongly aims at putting the focus on the processes using technology in order to organise production in a more efficient way and, thereby, will be acting as a helping hand to optimise the garment factories to set up such control systems – after analysing the factory, its needs and possible areas for technology implementation.
Jack Stock’s role in setting up ‘Rhino Intelligent Manufacturing Factory’…
Bullmer Mechanical and Electrical Technology Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of China’s Jack Stock, has become a core strategic partner of Alibaba in this new smart factory and has installed a whole line of cutting and spreading machines within the premises. At the beginning of the preparation of the ‘Rhino Intelligent Manufacturing Factory’ in China, the cutting division of Jack Stock – Bullmer – started cooperating with Alibaba team. Bullmer has not only provided high-precision and high-speed spreading machines as well as auto cutters for the Alibaba factory, but has also assisted Alibaba to get through data download and realise the remote control of the equipment.
The cutters and equipment of Bullmer are connected with Jack IoT functions, such as real-time display of equipment utilisation, output, status monitoring, work efficiency analysis, consumable status analysis, fault diagnosis, remote order dispatch, bed management, and seamless connection with the factory MES system. These can help them analyse production capacity and equipment efficiency, and arrange production reasonably within the new factory.
“Alibaba has a very deep understanding of advanced technologies such as digitalisation, Internet of Things, and new manufacturing, which has greatly inspired Bullmer. We are also very optimistic about the ‘Rhino Intelligent Manufacturing Factory’ and will participate wholeheartedly to build a future of smart manufacturing together,” informed Victor Kim, Vice General Manager, International Trade Department, Jack Stock while talking to Apparel Resources.
Commenting on the use of domestic technologies in Rhino Intelligent Factory, He Ye, Vice Chairman of China National Light Industry Council and Chairman of China Sewing Machinery Association, said, “As the typical example of high-end equipment manufacturing in light industry, sewing machinery industry has spared no efforts to seize the technological bonus brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the historic opportunity to build up the industry in recent years. The cooperation with Rhino Intelligent Factory fully demonstrates that sewing machinery manufacturers in China have practised high-quality development initiative put forward by CSMA, and showcases the current achievements in speeding up structural adjustment and capacity switch.”