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The apparel industry traditionally has consisted mostly of production workers who performed the cutting and sewing functions in an assembly line. This industry remains a labor-intensive one, despite advances in technology and workplace practices. Although many workers still perform this work in the United States, the industry is increasingly opening factories in other countries or contracting out its production work to foreign suppliers to take advantage of other countries' lower labor costs. In its place, a growing number of apparel manufacturers are performing only the entrepreneurial functions involved in apparel manufacturing. These include buying raw materials, designing clothes and accessories and preparing samples, arranging for the production and distribution of the apparel, and marketing the finished product.
Many of the remaining production workers work in teams, in which garments are made by a group of sewing machine operators organized into a production "module." Each operator in a module is trained to perform nearly all of the functions required to assemble a garment. Each team is responsible for its own performance, and individuals usually receive compensation based on the team's performance.
Technology affecting the apparel industry includes computerized equipment and material transport systems. Computers and computer-controlled equipment aid in many functions, such as design, patternmaking, and cutting. Wider looms, more computerized equipment, and the increasing use of robotics to move material within the plant are other technologies recently designed to make the production plant more efficient. Despite these changes, however, the apparel industryespecially its sewing functionhas remained significantly less automated than many other manufacturing industries.
One of the best assets that the domestic industry has over its competition from abroad is its closeness to the market and its ability to react to changes in fashion more quickly than can its foreign competitors. Also, as retailers consolidate and become more cost conscious, they are requiring more apparel manufacturers to move towards a just-in-time delivery system, in which purchased apparel items are quickly replaced by the manufacturer rather than from a large inventory kept by the retailer. Through electronic data interchangemainly using barcodesinformation is quickly communicated to the manufacturers, providing information not only on inventory, but also about the desires of the public for fashion items.
Apparel firms have responded to growing competition by merging and moving into the retail market. They are also contracting out functions in addition to the production of garmentsfor example, the warehousing and order fulfillment functionsso that they can concentrate on their strengths of design and marketing. Such changes may help the apparel manufacturing industry to continue to supply the Nation's consumers with garments at acceptable cost and thus meet the growing competition.
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