TAL Apparel innovates biz with hyper-converged infrastructure

Kia Kiang (left) from TAL Apparel and Edward Yeung (right) from NutanixDespite being a 70-year-old garment manufacturer, Hong Kong-headquartered TAL Apparel is anything but a traditional business. Innovation is in the blood of this garment manufacturer of well-known brands, including Brooks Brothers, J.Crew and Thomas Pink. The company holds a patent for punker-free garment and developed the water repellent technology for fabrics.

Besides fabric innovation, manufacturing automation, lean processing and IT-led business transformation are also top priorities for TAL Apparel. VP of IT Kai Kiang (pictured, left) said the company’s latest focus is to drive business innovation using technology

With the rising popularity of industrial 4.0 and technologies like robotics and IoT, Kiang said manufacturers that are exploring these technologies need a stable and scalable on-premise IT environment to support the real-time responses.

“Robotics applications require real-time responses,” said Kiang. “The data collection, analysis and processing needs to be real-time and the IT infrastructure needs the proximity to control these systems. Public cloud would not make sense in this environment.”

According to Kiang, one way to prepare for industrial 4.0 is to take advantage of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). It is a software-centric IT architecture that tightly integrates compute, storage, networking and virtualization resources.

“I learned about HCI a few years ago,” said Kiang. “One year later, when we were planning business expansion and reviewing technology refresh cycles, it was a good opportunity to explore this technology.”

Demand for 24x7 operations

Three years ago, TAL Apparel was planning a major expansion to open new manufacturing plants. The expansion means the company would be operating at cheaper, but remote and developing countries like Vietnam and Ethiopia.

Running manufacturing plants in developing countries can significantly reduce the operation costs, but at the same time the utilities, like power supply and Internet bandwidth, could be very unstable.

“In developing countries the bandwidth is usually narrow,” said Kiang. “The other problem is the unstable connectivity. We cannot count on the network for 24x7 operations.”

Yet, 24x7 operations is exactly what the company needs in the industry of fast fashion. TAL Apparel customers are demanding more new fabric designs, which requires bringing in new production processes, at a faster pace. With demand for a smaller volume but more variety, the manufacturer is constantly adjusting production processes. Thus manufacturing automation and 24x7 operations are important for the company.

“My job is to support 24x7 operations in the factories,” he said. “I need to make sure every minute we are pumping out garments.”

Kiang said the manufacturer produces one of every six shirts sold in the US, with a total of 52 million pieces of garment within one year. To offer a more stable environment and meet the demands of fast fashion operations, TAL Apparel adopted a hybrid IT environment.

TAL Apparel uses public cloud for its CRM and email and instant messaging applications. Meanwhile, Kiang’s team also adopted HCI from Nutanix to simplify and stabilize its on-premise IT environment for other factory and corporate applications.

Dealing with reliability, scalability and skills

Before adopting HCI, TAL Apparel had a traditional IT architecture, consisting of mainly blade server systems, storage area network (SAN) and virtualization software. Each factory had a similar setup to support its operations.