IT boosts manufacturing sector

Management information is a major concern for Karl Ting, GM for the Crystal Group's Information Services Department. Crystal Group designs and manufacturers fashion garments for many of the leading international brand names. With 25,000 employees and manufacturing facilities located in twelve countries across Asia, the group produces 180 million garments a year.

An important new IT project is the Crystal Business Intelligence Framework, which provides unified information from management systems, including SAP, and a production management program called GPro. "We have a successful SAP ERP," said Ting, "but we needed to go beyond that to provide a unified real-time business intelligence framework."

The user interface is a web services portal based on Microsoft Sharepoint Portal 2003, which can be accessed through the group's intranet or remotely, through the Internet. Other Microsoft products in the mix include Business Scorecard Manager 2005 (used to monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and SQL Server 2005, while development tool Visual Studio.NET 2005 is used to extract data from various systems for the data warehouse.

Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 is used as a communications tool between users. "If a sales figure fails to reach its budget, and the chairman wants to know why, he can see if the general manager of the relevant division is online and, if so, contact him through text, speech or videophone," said Ting. "Users can also use a white board, or share Excel and PowerPoint files."

RFID streamlines Hanoi factory flow

Another interesting project managed by Ting is the adoption of RFID devices to replace smart cards in providing information on work in progress (WIP) in the company's new Hanoi factory.

Crystal Group uses a real-time shop floor application from Malaysia's GPRO Technologies Berhad: GPro for WIP tracking. "In a competitive market, we wanted to reduce lead time on customer orders, and also obtain more real-time information on defects to support our quality drive," said Ting. "We decided RFID was the answer."

The RFID chips are inserted into tags which are tied to a bundle of a certain garment type. As the workers complete each production task, such as sewing seams or adding buttons, they hang the bundles in a protective bag or a hanging bar and the conveyor moves it past the RFID terminal, where information on the bundle and the completed process is recorded in the GPro application.

The RFID system was tested in Crystal's Dongguan simulation laboratory, then installed at 200 workstations. In future, said Ting, the RFID tags will be utilized at more of the company's 10,000 workstations that use the GPro system.

Previously, Crystal used a "smart card" system which required a separate operation to read a batch of cards after each production stage, while now data from the RFID tags is uploaded automatically to local terminals. "The performance of each production line is monitored in real time," said Ting. "Workers can even check their own output volume and earnings from their local RFID terminal, which supports our incentive scheme."

Washing data

The RFID devices cost more than smart cards, but are re-usable and don't wear out as they don't have to be physically swiped. But unsurprisingly, when bundles of garments go through a washing stage, the RFID devices must be removed. "Our laboratory is developing a waterproof type that can withstand high temperatures, stone and chemical wash," said Ting.

The RFID devices are so successful that other applications are being found for them, including identifying the supplier and batch of fabrics used in production. In most garment companies are still using paper barcodes fixed to garments. "Paper barcodes have to be scanned in batches, they are easily damaged and do not provide real-time information," noted Ting.

Both the Business Intelligence initiative and the RFID technology are providing better management information at Crystal, said Ting "We plan to use the Balanced Scorecard management system to help Crystal's strategic focus," he said. "We have already standardized information between departments and systems and have made it available to our management through the Internet."

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