A tectonic shift is underway in the Bangladeshi non-denim bottoms manufacturing & export landscape. Pioneering the wave, M&S has moved its entire production of non-denim casual bottoms to Bangladesh. At the same time globally, the events have turned in Bangladesh’s favour – the wages are rising in China, the US-Bahrain FTA is on its last leg, and the evergreen appeal of denim bottoms has given way to non-denim alternatives that come packed with value additions like performance finishes. In all these indices, Bangladesh is at the forefront. The country is on its way to developing a new competency and learning new lessons to take the whole industry to the next level of professionalism with a trained middlemanagement, product developments and sustainable vertically integrated Lean set-ups. Team Apparel Online augurs…

Brandix Casualwear, Sparrow Apparels Limited, Spider Group, Islam Garments and Bando Designs – all of them are qualified to tap the non-denim casual bottoms market. “There was a time when it was said denim will sell round the year, but now chino trend is showing a strong surge,” observes Shane Baldsing, COO, Brandix Casualwear. Interestingly enough, Brandix, best-known for its sleepwear & loungewear, briefs and bras, forayed into Bangladesh with casualwear. Shane explains, “Bangladesh has traditionally been the main hub for bottomwear, and that’s why the customers… Scale of production, abundance of trained and untrained manpower, easy resource availability, and also the encouraging economic incentives given by the Government, attracted us to start with casual bottoms first. Besides, we have the relevant expertise and technical skills to produce bottoms.” Brandix, based in Comilla EPZ, entered Bangladesh 5 years ago and is today a 3,200 workforce and 1,400 sewing machine-strong venture earning an annual revenue of US $ 50 million. Buoyed by the increased demand for non-denim bottoms, Brandix is geared up for the next phase of expansion for which the company has already procured land on lease, adjacent to its existing factory where a three-storey unit would come up soon.

A strong impetus to the bottomwear market has been the product development and finishes which fetch the industry better prices. “The average price given to us for bottoms is on the rise for the past few years. Last year we saw a rise of 2 to 2.5% in the prices and this year we expect a rise of 5% in the pricing as compared to last year,” maintains Shovon Islam, MD, Sparrow Apparels who is planning to invest in a washing plant equipped with latest technologies for dry and wet processing of denim.

Sourcing competencies drive profitability

Another key to maintain reasonable margins is fabric sourcing at the right quantity and price. At times, the buyer nominates the fabric supplier with the reason to standardise quality and that reduces the margins for the manufacturer to operate. Reazul Karim, Chairman, Spider Group maintains, “When companies take fabrics from nominated vendors, charges are double of what one would pay if buying directly from the fabric manufacturer. But then the onus is on us to check the fabric quality, which some companies are not equipped to handle. However, when we source our raw material, we can press for a premium price instead of settling for what is on offer.” Established in 2008, Spider Group is the brainchild of Reazul, who quit his job as a merchandiser and started the company. Karim travels extensively to China and other countries to build a tight and efficient sourcing network. With an annual turnover of US $ 80 million, Spider Group has four factories employing 18,000 people, producing 12 million bottoms per month for buyers such as Aldi, Lidle and Kik.

Elaborating further Reazul says, “Of the 1.2 million bottoms produced by us, half of them is denim and the balance half is non-denim. Denim is more seasonal with reduced demand during summers than non-denim bottoms. Moreover non-denim bottoms are also a major part of kidswear, another promising product category, although denim bottoms have a higher FOB compared to non-denims, but at the same time price of denim fabrics is also higher. So both the products are equally lucrative in their own particular ways.”

Asela Fernando, Executive Director, Bando Design (a unit of Sterling Group), on the other hand endorses the nominated supplier network saying, “There are cases when the nominated supplier gives the same price as any other company would. However, buyers’ concern predominantly being quality, working with a nominated supplier ensures quality and inspection, besides testing procedures which are all buyerassured, guaranteeing quality fabrics thereby.” Bando Designs is mainly producing kidswear bottoms such as chinos, fivepocket jeans, corduroy shorts and skirts. About 90 per cent of Bando Design’s capacities are dedicated for H&M’s kidswear range. The company has grown from a 12-line casual bottoms factory to a 20-line factory. A new 1800-machine plant from the group is on the cards, and while with the new factory the company will start producing shirts, blouses and jackets, bottoms will continue to be a part of the portfolio at this new factory as well.

For fabric sourcing, Brandix and Spider Group are relying mainly on the local mills such as Hamid Fabric and Zaber & Zubair, thanks to the GSP benefit attached to products made of locally-sourced materials. Currently 50% of Spider Group’s sourcing is from Bangladeshi mills and for Brandix Casualwear, which presently sources 20% of its fabric from Bangladesh. Plans are on to increase the share of locallysourced fabrics significantly in coming days. Talking of price competitiveness in countries such as China, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, Shane says, “When it comes to fabrics, nothing is fixed as at times when you’d expect China to give the best possible price, a mill in Bangladesh would offer a better bargain instead, and vice-versa. But in general, fabric suppliers from the subcontinent have now become more attractive in terms of service and pricing.”

Taking a step towards selfreliance in fabrics, Islam Garments, one of the biggest Bangladeshi non-denim casual trouser producers with annual turnover of US $ 180 million, invested in a fabric weaving plant for in-house consumption way back in the 2008. “The idea of becoming a vertically integrated non-denim bottom manufacturer struck us in the year 2000, when we were working with Walmart for the US market. Since we did not enjoy quota advantage and had to fight it out with China on fabric price, it was very difficult for us to meet the target price and vertical integration helped a lot towards this end. Moreover, the benefits were further enhanced when we started working with the European market, wherein we had to source the fabric locally to take advantage of the GSP,” highlights Shahrier Ahmed, Director, Islam Garments. Producing 20,000 metres of non-denim fabrics per day, Islam Garments has 135 sewing lines for non-denim bottoms, 33 lines for shirts and 80 sewing lines for knit apparels along with fabric knitting and processing capabilities. Working with brands such as Walmart, Target, Sears, C&A, Pull & Bear, Zara, Esprit and s.Oliver, Islam Garments has two production units, one each in Ashulia and Gazipur, dedicated to the American and European buyers, respectively. Islam Group is also looking at establishing a 25,000 spindle spinning unit in the Sylhet region for supporting its weaving mills in the backdrop of Government’s encouragement to the units to move out of Dhaka and Chittagong, by giving them ready-to-use power and gas connection facilities.

Product Development:  The way forward!

Unlike 5-7 years ago, the buyers today are very demanding. They want us to give design inputs and suggest novelty as well. “They also look at us to suggest ways to reduce lead time and cost,” says Sharier and to which agrees Shane. Taking cue, the trendsetters of the industry are now visiting international fashion shows, utilising trend forecasting agencies and keeping a tab on renowned brands for innovations. The real challenge however remains universal – competitive pricing. This not only demands linkages with fabric suppliers who can replicate the feel and look of the original fabric, but also requires process and product knowledge for making the product within the stipulated FOB limit given by buyers. “We have a dedicated facility for sampling as it is a continuous process. In sampling we focus on small variations in the pocket styling and the waistband that can add to the look of a bottom. A high-end fabric is not required to make a high-end bottom; instead a basic fabric can be washed in such a manner that the value of the endproduct increases significantly. The overall look of these improvised bottoms at times can match that of a premium brand,” shares Reazul.

In complete agreement with him, Shahrier observes, “At a time when the euro has gone down by 25% compared to dollar, the buyers are not ready to increase the buying price and hence the pressure came on us to maintain our profit margins. That is when we started offering our buyers similar looking but relatively cost-effective fabric options, and partnered with the yarn suppliers to develop yarns that despite being cost-competitive, offered great looks.” The advantages of having in-house fabric manufacturing further empowers the company to produce fabric for high-end styles that are usually in smaller quantities which another fabric manufacturer would probably refuse to manufacture considering the quantity of fabric required would be comparatively lesser.

Sparrow Apparels has the rare distinction of being a development partner for Mango – the Spainbased retailer. As a development partner, the Sparrow Apparels’ teams studies the bestselling styles of Mango, the demographics and customer profiles. The company is also working towards becoming the development partners for Banana Republic’s outerwear jackets line.

Manufacturing paradigms

From a macro perspective, all the companies have a comparable approach to bottom manufacturing. The focus is on value engineering, automation and product engineering. Every company has invested in automated machines from brands such as Vibemac, ASS, Duerkopp Adler and, Sipami, along with automatic cutting and spreading equipments. As washing is a crucial value in addition to bottoms, companies have invested in washing machines from Ramsons and Tonello.

However, despite the similarities, there is still a degree of uniqueness in the manufacturing operations of every company. Bando Design and Islam Garments, who instead of having a separate part preparation line, have set up Central Preparation Units (CPUs) equipped with automated machines for belt loop attaching, waistband attaching, J-stitch, back pocket preparation and setting as the bottomwear product category presents limited avenues for variations. The placement of the automatic machines outside the assembly lines has helped the companies reduce WIP by 20%. “These machines are not placed in the sewing lines as they are more productive than regular SNLS sewing machines run by operators and would increase the WIP within the lines,” explains Asela. “We have been able to reduce our manpower by 20% due to investments in these machines as both the number of operators and helpers required have come down significantly,” adds Sharier. Similar is the manpower saving projections of Asela, who is looking at reducing the man-machine ratio to below 2, from the present level of 2.17, coming a long way from the earlier man-machine ratio of 2.6, through templates and guides.

In an upcoming factory of Sterling Group, Asela will be completely separating the part preparation from the final assembly to ensure assembly lines are not affected by the changes in bottom styling as most of the variations can be conceived in the part preparation lines. This would be an extension of the existing CPUs in the sewing lines.

Besides the modifications, Islam Garments has also hired German consultants for conducting time and motion study of their sewing processes. As a result of this intervention, the company has been experimenting with a new sewing line in which the whole workplace of an operator has been elevated from the ground by a foot and the trouser panels are hung on a stand along their lengths. This, the company claims reduces workers’ fatigue as they do not have to open a bundle or lift it because they just need to lift a panel while it is attached to the stand and do bottom hemming, or just take out two panels from the stand, sew the inseam together and hang the attached panel back on the stand. Brandix on the other hand is executing its orders with the band concept, i.e. cutting table and sewing lines fall in one team; so does washing, and then finally finishing. “Such a setup has been helpful in handling small order quantities and keeping the throughput time in check,” explains Shane.

At the centre of these paradigms lies an unmistakable trend that is gaining foot – empowering middle-management and operator workforce. Bando is pioneering the concept of incorporating quality control even at the operator level. “We have gone ahead to train our operators on how to trim the thread,” Asela shares. Furthermore, in what can be labelled as truly an effort to empower the Bangladeshi middle-level managers, Brandix recruited a Lean Consultant from Bangladesh itself and 4 MBA graduates from the Comilla University. “We gave them extensive training in Sri Lanka for six months and that team will now come and implement Lean in this location. So, the rate of adaption becomes very high as the local people are teaching the local people, and so the communication is much clearer. For us, Lean is a very basic principle, it’s about having a proper work place, a better supply chain and more focus on the human factor. If we make sure 100% machine requirement, 100% skill development, defect-free supply chain, and make all the other departments and processes waste-free, then the operator would definitely be able to give a better output in terms of quality and efficiency,” concludes Shane.

Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

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