Performance Scrubs Gets a High-Tech Manufacturing Makeover

Forget New York, forget Los Angeles, forget San Francisco: if you're looking for true innovation in apparel, look south, past the well-known hotbeds of North and South Carolina into the heart of the deep South: Alabama.

The rumblings of a Made-in-America renaissance are alive and well in Florence, Ala., where high-tech medical apparel manufacturer PerformanceScrubs unveiled in October 2014 a brand-new 50,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that houses highly skilled and specialized seamstresses, cutter operators, software engineers, and sales and marketing staff. Not that domestic production is necessarily new to the company. For many years Performance outsourced production to cut-and-sew factories in and around Cullman, Ala., says J. Kirby Best, co-founder and CEO.

"About six years ago Performance bought the assets of an old cut-and-sew operation and decided that one of our core strengths would be the manufacturing of products right here in the United States," explains Best. "Today, Made in the USA is one of our identifiers, although we often say ‘don't buy it because it is made in the USA, buy it because it's the best in the world.'"

To Best, the value proposition of committing to domestic manufacturing seems clear as day. "Many apparel companies are seeking ways to bring their manufacturing back to the U.S. but cannot seem to get past the prices they are receiving in China," he notes. "However, if these companies examined the entire costs associated with manufacturing the supply chain offshore and not just the price per piece, the benefits would become obvious."

The new technologically advanced factory is the result of many years of research and collaboration with thought leaders across industries, according to Best. "Great minds with top experience from IBM, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the largest on-demand digital printing company came together to develop a whole new way to do business," he explains. "The supply chain has been stretched to the limit in the clothing business. Performance seized the opportunity and collaborated with experts whose boldly creative and technically brilliant minds created a solution that addresses these challenges."

That solution is the OnPoint system, which features Recirculation Backbone Technology (RBT), an automated manufacturing platform that employs software-driven proprietary workflows and a smart three-dimensional conveyer system. Essentially, RBT shuttles totes filled with cut fabric to the right sewer in the right sequence, though it's actually much more sophisticated than that, says Best. "By automating the entire supply chain from order entry to delivery, you can use one factory to make millions of unique products simultaneously," he adds. For clients, this means inventory can be greatly reduced or even eliminated in some cases as stock can be replenished literally overnight. And RBT is cost-effective even for one-off runs.

Research reveals that consumers want and expect a wide range of options in every product, Best notes. "The solution is to integrate all of the systems so that the order flows directly from the customer completely through the system without human interference, without building inventory while still offering millions of unique product combinations."

In addition to scrubs, the company also produces sportswear and sleepwear, all of which leverage similar technical fabrics that deliver moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, wrinkle-resistant, color control and odor elimination properties. Every product can be customized to the client's specifications, says Best. Beyond quality and ensuring that each item shipped meets highly defined specifications, Performance's most closely tracked metric is operations per hour. Because every garment requires a unique set of  operations, the only measurement that means anything out on the floor level is operations per hour per shift, explains Best. "The whole management team carries iPads around the shop and can always give any of the team members their exact counts at any moment," he explains. "Soon every workstation will be equipped with a monitor that will scroll through the necessary functions and information needed."

Instead of resting on its laurels, Performance is investigating new ways to enhance its facility and service, experimenting with computerized avatars, 3D laser measuring systems, and robotic arms to deliver even greater levels of automation and customization.

Best is certain that the apparel industry will have to evolve significantly in coming years. "Business lines will blur more and faster than before. Retail will move towards showrooms, and manufacturing or high-speed distribution will adapt to make this happen," he says.

"An omnichannel approach to selling will win, but the question now is just how long will it take, and can manufacturing drive it fast enough?"

Editor's Note: Want to learn more about our 2015 Top Innovators? Click here

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