Year 2020 has seen severe impact on apparel business world over due to COVID-19 pandemic which has reduced consumers’ demand and shuddered the profitability of both retailers and manufacturers. However, resilience is something that could be seen in some progressive apparel and textile manufacturing companies’ efforts as they are still innovating in their own way to increase agility and operational efficiency.
Esquel Group, Hong Kong-based world’s leading shirt manufacturer, had been facing a problem of finding a cost-effective and flexible manufacturing process to produce specialty yarns in Esquel Specialty Spinning (ESS) – a part of the Group’s vertically integrated supply chain that supplies the Group’s global factories and other customers with specialty yarns. The Group found the answer by laying a model of a flexible manufacturing system that is based on three key elements: automated equipment, decentralised management and a team of ‘mangineers’ responsible for various tasks on the shopfloor.
The term ‘mangineer’ is a combination of two words – ‘manager’ and ‘engineer’, which welds together the traditional roles of both an engineer and a manager – and is aimed at implementing lean and agile operational concepts even more robustly in the Group’s operations. One key ingredient in the success of ESS’ flagship operation in Guilin, China, is the ‘mangineer’ programme – as Esquel Group says so.
According to Edgar Tung, Managing Director and Head of Global Operations, the mangineer term is championed by Tian Ye, Managing Director of ESS to form a new group of trained professionals who wear many hats. “They are capable not just of overseeing routine machine operations, but can also supervise quality control, ensuring production safety, and – above all – onsite, cross-functional project management,” said Edgar.
Mangineer programme aims at increasing ‘Operational Efficiency’ for competitiveness
Designed to meet the demands of increasingly complicated and ever-changing production scenarios, the mangineer programme hinges on two principles – decentralised management and centralised control.
Decentralised management emphasises on empowering each mangineer with responsibility for all aspects of production in his or her designated zone within the factory which includes planning, machinery operation, quality assurance and resolving technical issues. Edgar says that every mangineer is equipped with the skillset and authority to manage all scenarios without supervision.
So, how does this mangineer concept differ from a traditional process? Decentralised management enormously cuts down the time consumption and workforce required for each activity as compared to the conventional process which saves huge manufacturing costs and escalates productivity as well as efficiency.
Edgar gives an example: To change a machine setting, the traditional process involves at least 10 steps and requires coordination among different departments, which takes an average of 59 minutes. With mangineers taking up the task, there is no need to coordinate between departments; the process can instead be boiled down to four steps and completed within 25 minutes, that’s more than half the time taken previously.
As far as the need for centralised control system of the factory is concerned, this becomes a necessary concept as there are a lot of challenges associated with automated production process. Whenever a problem is detected, centralised control system makes it possible to send onsite mangineers to the location where problem occurs. This deployment is done based on their skills, workloads and seeing the urgency of the stopped process due to technology issue.
“This combines process automation with the flexibility of human intervention. The agile system manages an optimal balance between staff capacity and efficient troubleshooting,” asserted Edgar. Mangineers are subsequently assessed based on comprehensive key performance indicators (KPIs) that take into account labour intensity and employee happiness. If this was to be done traditionally, tasks would have to be assessed and assigned manually to different departments, and precious time would be wasted on cross-functional communication and approvals.
The combination of these two approaches has reengineered the production process across the entire Guilin factory, maximising its operational efficiency.
The official statistics of the Esquel Group say that the yarn output per capita at ESS in Guilin factory has surged by 333.34 per cent from 30 kg to 130 kg per day in last couple of years after implementing the mangineer programme. The headcount per 10,000 spindles has reduced by 74 per cent from 146 to 38, which is well above the industry benchmark. The time spent in upgrading employees’ skills has decreased by 70 per cent, while their take-home pay has steadily increased.
The well-crafted skills nurturing the right team
Esquel Group recruited more than 150 college graduates, having engineering background, to the mangineer programme in 2015. These fresh talents received one year of basic skills training before undergoing a simulation workshop to acquire hands-on experience of different production scenarios. Their engineering skills were put to the test when they handled the set-up of all newly imported machines before production began at the factory in 2018.
According to Marcus Chao, President of Lean Enterprise China, the fresh graduates were also required to work on the manufacturing floor to learn about equipment handling and maintenance, essential technical skills and management skills for different operations. Their mission was to achieve a dynamic and optimised balance of tasks, people, and system to manage the work in their assigned zones. For this innovative process, ESS harnessed the power of Lean Thinking.
To still motivate the mangineers, the programme constantly assesses them through an advancement ladder that consists of five rungs. Top-performing mangineers at the highest rungs are rewarded with exchange programmes at other Esquel factories and with more managerial responsibilities.