Manufacturing day sews a feather in the cap of Portland students

Krista Martenson

As Will Schuh walked among the industrial sewing machines set with cones of orange thread, a timer on his phone raced through the milliseconds. Every second represented more labor cost.

His colleagues fed strips of fabric through the machines, taking care to keep stitching straight. The tiniest hole on the final product meant that item wouldn’t be included in the shipment to the client. Every discarded orange hat increased the final unit cost.

The push-pull of quality assurance with maximizing employee time plays out daily in apparel factories around the world. But this “factory” is the University of Oregon’s Sports Product Management Innovation Laboratory in Portland, and the workers are first-year graduate students in the Lundquist College of Business program.

The students spent fall term learning what goes into determining the final cost of a product, from labor and materials to overhead and defective products. They also learned the manufacturing process by creating a piece in the lab, such as a t-shirt or shoe.

SkullcapBut the winter term manufacturing day was the first time Schuh and his classmates got the chance to construct and cost at the same time, all while creating a real product for Operation of Hope. The nonprofit works to correct facial deformities of children throughout the world, with surgical staff wearing bright orange skullcaps.

“Last term we had no constraints when working in the lab on our products,” said Schuh, an Army officer and former basketball player who applied to the sports product management program to get back to his sports and outdoor roots. “Today we are bringing the lab and costing worlds together. I’m timing the flow of the sewers to get the labor cost per unit. How long is each stage taking? Where are the inefficiencies? What could we do next time to bring the labor cost down?”

The manufacturing day was put together by Krista Martenson, the apparel instructor for the innovation lab who has worked in technical apparel design and factory consulting for more than 20 years, and Eric Goldner, who teaches the costing class and has a background in supply chain, financing and costing for companies including Nike, Coach and KEEN. The goal was having students fully experience the factory process.

“The factory wasn’t set up when they got here,” said Martenson, who has helped produce the skullcaps for more than 10 years. “They had to find the right thread and think through the process. If everyone is cutting, then no one is sewing and that’s an idle labor cost.”

Students work on capAs material moved through the production line, students experienced the frustration of a ripped seam or items not moving quickly through a step.

“This experience isn’t about learning to sew. It’s about having empathy for the whole process and what it means to be part of a team,” Martenson said. “I’ve worked with factories where we don’t speak the same language, but when I can sit at a machine and show the process, there’s better understanding of the final product and a lot of respect.”

The 18-month sports product management master’s program at UO Portland focuses on the business of creating athletic and outdoor apparel, footwear and equipment. Students work closely with instructors and mentors at international sports companies while gaining experience in areas such as product development, merchandising, product line management, demand planning and sustainability supply chain management.

“There is so much complexity to getting to a final product. It requires careful attention to detail and a keen sense of management,” said Eric Theisen, a student with an exercise science and kinesics background who worked on sketching and cutting the pattern. “I work at the Apple Store troubleshooting problems. This process has made me more empathetic to the idea or concept of what it takes to create a product. It’s the ability to look way back to when a product was first ideated and put in the manufacturing process. So many hands touch one product.”

The caps created by the sports product management students will be used in May at a surgical camp in Zimbabwe.

—By Heidi Hiaasen, University Communications