FALL RIVER, MASS. — TWO visions of how to survive the onslaught of imported clothing are emerging in United States apparel manufacturing - one using better machines, the other using people better. At Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass., researchers for the apparel industry consortium TC2 have created a machine that cranks out a pair of sweatpants every 20 seconds.
``Of course, there's a lot of automation out there already,'' says Edward Bernardon, one of the machine's creators. ``But we think this is the next step.''
Mr. Bernardon's pride and joy looks a lot like a Rube Goldberg construction of computer chips, circuit boards, electronic eyes, and pistons. Picking with metal tines a piece of precut fabric from a stack, the machine draws it along a flat surface, lines up edges, then sews leg seams in a machine-gun burst of stitching.
It does a near perfect job. No fringe benefit costs, no coffee breaks. But at $175,000, cost could be a problem. It also lacks flexibility to make other garments.
Just 75 miles south of Draper Labs, a quite different view of the future of apparel manufacturing is emerging at A & A Manufacturing in Fall River, Mass.
Beads of sweat glisten on Gene Laudon's bearded face as he strides across the bright expanse of his wood-slat floored factory. Dotting an area half the size of a football field are heaps of brightly colored clothing and sewing stations with cords dangling from the ceiling. More than 100 mostly Portuguese immigrant women sit all day, thrusting fabric under the buzzing equipment.
``I can't compete with prices retailers get in the Caribbean,'' says Mr. Laudon as he stops to grab a partly completed paisley skirt for graphic evidence. ``But if a retailer gives me an order for 100 dresses today, I could have them out tomorrow.''
What allows Laudon to respond so quickly is a short production line of just 10 women that stretches along the factory's northeast wall. Each woman here operates not one, but several machines. Known as ``modular'' manufacturing, this ``flexible'' approach to apparel manufacture permits Laudon to run his factory more efficiently. It also changes attitudes.
Each woman in this line sews, not just pocket after pocket, but a variety of seams, pockets, tucks, then passes garments along to the next in line. Daily group meetings iron out problems. It is the type of worker involvement revolutionizing manufacturing from autos to computers.
Cid'alis Resendes is a changed woman since her switch to the new production line. She came to Fall River from the Azores 11 years ago at the age of 19. And in one way she is typical.
``I did just pleats and tucks - for 11 years,'' says Ms. Resendes with a sigh. ``The hours go by so slow and you get sick of it after all those years.'' Now, however, she sews many items and helps manage product quality.
``I like it better now because over here we're so busy doing different operations that lunch time just arrives quicker,'' she says. ``It's more fun. I've been learning new things. I've been learning pockets.''
Modular manufacturing is appearing in US apparel factories as managers are forced to cope with changing demand by apparel retailers. Worker shortages are also revealing the need to alter a ``sweatshop'' image.
``Instead of buying a fancy machine to automate something, you're using the person - their mind and hands,'' says Ed Rader, with Kurt Salmon Associates, an industry consultant.
Jaymar Ruby, one of the nation's largest makers of men's and ladies' clothing, began its ``worker involvement program'' last November to teach 100 workers how to manage their own production.
``Workers want more say, more control over lives and how they spend their work hours,'' says Roger Webb, Jaymar Ruby's vice president of manufacturing. ``The question is: How do we react?''
William Carter, a privately held children's clothing manufacturer in Griffin, Ga. ``reacted'' by training workers for modular manufacturing at several plants.
Technology will continue to improve productivity - particularly with commodity items like jeans and underwear. Yet that alone will not make the US competitive, Mr. Webb says. Blending automation and participatory management will be key.
``Workers are our most important resource,'' agrees Laudon. ``I think we have to scrap what we are doing with manufacturing and rethink the whole process in order to involve the labor force.''
Second of two parts.