With heat transfer labeling, the firm has made its inventory more flexible for "hot markets" with very short cycle times.
Labels that can't be read after several washes. Problems with U.S. Customs. Injured employees. Dissatisfied customers.
These are some of the concerns that executives at Tampa-based VF Imagewear had about converting to tagless labeling, a process whereby tags are applied directly to garments through a heat transfer process, rather than sewn into the apparel.
The company, a subsidiary of VF Corp. and a provider of sports and licensed apparel, was very comfortable with its use of woven labels. "Basically, [they] were a proven process," says Ken Hill, senior industrial engineering manager.
Tagless labeling was the unknown.
Still, tagless seemed to offer a lot of potential to improve speed and inventory flexibility, so about three years ago, VF Imagewear decided to look into it, evaluating tagless labels from the perspective of quality control, cost and, of course, customer buy-in.
Testing the waters
To even consider a conversion to tagless labeling, the company needed a majority of its customers to agree to the change, says Sandra Cramer, procurement manager at VF world headquarters in Greensboro, NC.
As it turned out, most of VF's customers were in favor of the switch to tagless. A small number, because they use multiple sources and wanted the labeling to be consistent at retail, were not.
"The bottom line is that we will meet the needs of our customers. We will show them all the advantages [of tagless], but if this is not the way they want to go, we can continue to honor their current requirements," says Cramer. "If and when those customers dictate a change, we are ready to react."
A cost-benefit analysis determined that the investment required to convert to tagless would pay for itself in less than a year. Tagless offers "tremendous savings," says Hill. "The transfers are less expensive than woven labels, and the speed of application is much faster."4
Taking the plunge
VF Imagewear evaluated labels from several suppliers as part of its process, conducting its own wash tests using dozens of samples with various types of transfers and screenprinted labels.
Based on its research, the company selected Unimark's Comfort Care transfers, which it reports were still readable and affixed to the garment after 23 washes. "We found that some [of their] competitors' products just did not hold up well. We did a lot of testing to be sure that we would not have dissatisfied customers," says Cramer.
T-shirts, which comprise 80 percent of VF Imagewear's production in Tampa, were the first to be converted to tagless. Other products, such as fleece, will soon be rolled out with the tagless labeling. Initial concerns about the readability of transfers on fleece have been allayed. "They are actually very clear [and] also adhere to fleece just as well as they do to a tee," says Hill, who adds that he believes tagless will work on all of the types of garments in the Imagewear division.
Seeking more flexible inventory
The Tampa facility does not manufacture the T-shirts -- "blanks" are manufactured by offshore contractors -- but it handles the decoration and printing for a wide variety of brands, including its own brands Lee and CSA as well as its customers' brands. Prior to its conversion to tagless, blanks were ordered with labels or tags already sewn in by customer brand, which limited the use of that inventory to just that brand, says Cramer.
For any given order, for example, even if the right blank style and color were available, the label might not be correct, which meant that the order couldn't be filled with available inventory unless the labels were manually cut out with scissors, and the correct ones sewn in.
"We basically had an inflexible inventory and wanted to make it more flexible," says Hill. The Tampa facility services a lot of "hot markets" that have very short cycle times. For example, an order for shirts may come in as a result of a team's winning a championship."We usually have 72 hours to get the product in the door, printed and shipped," says Hill.
Now, brand labels are applied after the shirt is screenprinted. "All we have to do is pull the shirts from inventory, and after printing them, apply the brand label. Then they're out the door," says Hill. "This definitely improves speed to market. It saves us as much as two days in the process."
As a result, not as many T-shirts with multiple brand labels need to be kept on hand. "We can react very quickly and put their label in it, and get it shipped," says Cramer. "This saved us a great deal of money in 2006, and we know it will save us even more as volume increases."
Because the brand label is applied at the point of decoration in order to keep inventory flexible, a two-step tagging process is used. First, the source plant applies a country of origin transfer with fabric content and size, placed two inches below the center of the neck to accommodate customs requirements.
Then, when the garment is decorated in Tampa, a second transfer is applied for branding. "This is something that we do differently [from some other companies that do tagless]," says Hill. "While others are applying one transfer, which includes the joker information plus the brand, we have a two-piece process."
Unique transfer process
To convert to tagless operations, VF invested in 32 Trekk automated heat transfer machines at a cost of about $10,000 each. The equipment allows transfers to be applied in-line as part of the screenprint operation. The Trekks were chosen in part because of a safety feature requiring the operator to take her hand out of the way of the transfer head in order to trigger the mechanism that brings it down. "It would be virtually impossible for somebody to get their hands [caught] underneath there, since you have to move out of the way before it comes down," says Cramer.
A lot of thought was put into the most efficient way to add the transfer process to the screenprinting operations. "You can have a quality transfer, but if you don't have a good way of applying it consistently, you can still have a lot of failures," says Cramer.
The company found a way to maximize time and efficiency by incorporating the transfer process into its existing screenprinting processes -- without adding any time to the cycle. How did it do this? After the screenprinting process, the shirts move under belt dryers, and a quality inspection is done to be sure the garments are printed correctly.
The company found that, because the conveyor moves slowly, there is time for the inspectors to pick up a shirt, apply the label, put it down and then pick up the next shirt, without any delay in the process. The same process is used for all tagless garments, because all of them are also screenprinted. (The Tampa facility does other types of embellishment, such as embroidery, but those garments are not part of the tagless operations.)
"We are very proud of this particular application style and do not think anyone else is doing it this way," says Hill. Operators are also happy, he notes, because they receive incentive pay for each transfer applied, which has significantly increased the hourly pay of many.
In mid-2006, the process was finally ready to be tested. The test was done with orders that could be held for an extra day if anything were to go wrong. Sixty operators, representing three shifts of 20 each, were trained on the process, which went more smoothly than expected. "The transfer machines have laser lights, so placement was exact, and we had virtually no damaged goods," says Hill.
VF Imagewear expects to ship 7 million tagless pieces this year and double that number in 2008. As for the company's primary blanks vendors, some were already doing tagless transfers for other customers. Others had no experience with a tagless process and needed to invest in the Trekk machines. Where needed, Unimark helped to facilitate the application process to be certain that transfers are applied properly and consistently.
The timing was definitely right for VF to go tagless, says Hill. "Our business is really growing, and as it grows, tagless will help us reduce inventory and be more responsive to our customers' needs," he says.
Stacey Kusterbeck is an Apparel contributing author based in New York.