I teach a senior level course on Product Development and Management. Each semester I teach this course I am frustrated by the lack of opportunities, due to the nature and sites of production in the apparel industry, to give the students a first-hand field experience (understanding of a design studio, a factory production floor, or a distribution center). It is true that the campus library has resources (including often outdated videos) showing the production practices within the apparel industry and there does exist current documentation online, yet, there is nothing like a real experience of production as context that the students can pull from as they move forward in their careers. Students coming into the field at entry-level frequently lack the tacit skills and “know how” that on the ground industry experiences instill. How can we as educators provide this level of experience?
I was determined to take my students on a field trip to view an apparel manufacturer this past semester, but it was impossible! Philadelphia has a small but active apparel manufacturing sector, however, I could not weave my magic within our semester timeframe and was unable to secure an apparel tour. I did manage to find a family-owned textile mill who welcomed us into their factory. Wayne Mills is a manufacturer of a “wide variety of woven narrow fabrics including twill tape, binding and webbing.”
During our visit the students were personally guided by the owner and had one-on-one interactions with the loom manager and master dyer. These experts provided insight into production, from the vendors perspective, including a few humbling stories about designer’s haste (or ignorance) and how a lack of understanding of the supply chain can cause waste (or interrupt) the cohesion of a complex, fine-knit system. Our field trip put a face on a facet of the supply chain. The students, in their entry-level jobs as sourcing and trim assistants, will remember how design decisions of a tiny little ribbon can affect the complex supply chain and the many tributaries of vendors, materials, and people involved in apparel manufacturing.
In this case, I was fortunate to find a textile manufacturer kindred to apparel within the region. However, I did entertain the idea of touring non-apparel production facilities (Tasty Baking Company to use a Philadelphia example) as well. I propose that within each of our communities there exists local production and manufacturing facilities that can be tapped as teaching tools for demonstrating supply chain production and management. It might not be cut-and-sew or fiber-to-finish, but these opportunities can offer students valuable insight from raw material to merchandised product and ultimately demystify the complex and abstract concepts inherit in a manufacturing supply chain.