Levi’s Adds Lasers to Its Production Line

March 1, 2018

Levi Strauss started selling blue jeans more than 100 years ago to miners and farmers who appreciated how long the pants could last under tough conditions. And while today’s consumers love the distressed look that denim achieves with a lot of wear, they don’t exactly want to toil in a mine in order to scuff up their jeans properly. Instead, over the years Levi’s has done all the fraying, fading and ripping themselves in a time-consuming process. Besides taking about 20 minutes to hand-finish a pair of jeans, the procedure can also use up to 1,000 chemicals that are both costly and bad for the environment.

In an effort to streamline this inefficient process, Levi’s is gradually introducing automation to its production facilities. The company’s new system relies on laser technology rather than sandpaper-wielding employees to cut and tear into jeans. (Check out a video of the lasers at work here.) Although some denim makers have used lasers in recent years, the 90-second process developed by Levi’s is the first one that does not require any further hand finishing. The company claims this reduces the steps required to make a pair of jeans from 20 to just three. It also cuts production time in half, allowing jeans to end up in warehouses within three months rather than six. Plus, Levi’s laser process lessens the need for additional chemicals.

The company’s ultimate goal is to match their supply more accurately with consumer demand, thus reducing their dependence on end-of-year markdowns to clear out unwanted stock. Levi’s has been testing the system at a Mexican facility that plans to scale up its laser-assisted production within the next two years. That’s bad news for the more than 600 employees who work at the factory as hand-finishers, although the company says these staffers will be redeployed elsewhere rather than laid off. By 2020, the company expects all of its factories to be equipped with fabric-etching lasers.

Questions:

  1. How do small changes on an assembly line end up saving companies tons of time and money?
  2. Do you think other blue jean companies should follow Levi’s lead and adopt automated laser technology in their factories? Why or why not?

Source: Suzanne Kapner, “Levi’s Wants Lasers, Not People, to Rip Your Jeans,” The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2018. Photo by Jamiecat.

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