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Digital Workflows Get a Closer Look at Innovate Textile and Apparel Americas

By Genevieve Bot

WTiN’s Lead Analyst, Mutlu Chaouch Orozco, pointed to the latest research on the use of digital twins at ITAA. Photo Credit: Devin Steele, eTC

Forward-thinking leaders want to know the latest in digitally-connected manufacturing and supply chains to advance product development and also ensure quality early on with efficient communication. As new technology and more products come to market, we also see industry events focusing on digital advances. Digital textile micro-factories have been on display at Texprocess since 2017, and with five different micro-factories on display this year, they continue to intrigue the industry as complex logistics become more tied together.  The expansive floor area allocated to digital textile printing at ITMA this year indicates that digital printing is gaining attention as well.

This May, technology leaders in the textile industry had an opportunity to come together in Raleigh, NC, USA for a new event focused on digital trends. The first edition of Innovate Textile & Apparel Americas 2019 (ITAA) was an event organized for business leaders and product developers to take away meaningful insight on digital transformations in the textile industry and learn how to adapt to leaner systems that are automated and flexible. Organized by the World Textile Information Network (WTiN) following an inaugural European event in Amsterdam, Netherlands, workshops and speakers covered digitization of the supply chain and digital workflows for product creation.

Digital Printing

According to WTiN, global output of digitally-printed fabric has risen from 1.2 billion m² to 2.5 billion m² over the last four years. While the technology has been around for some time, the concept of localized small-scale and on-demand production that can be achieved with digital printing is making waves in the emerging market, where brands want to change designs on the fly based on market data. Digital printing is increasing rapidly across all levels of production.

The availability of sophisticated digital print machinery that can achieve advanced color quality and the upsurge in demand for customization has generated huge potential for start-ups, who can take advantage of some resolved issues, though they will still encounter a technical learning curve. Mass manufacturers are evolving to meet market demands by making transitions gradually, some are implementing digital production for small batch runs, while keeping their existing operation for larger runs. ITAA speaker Bill Grier from AM4U has helped apparel manufacturers convert all or part of their conventional coloring, cutting, and sewing to digital on-demand tech. According to Grier, only 23% of women’s apparel sells at retail price, due to overstock of inventory. He has worked to understand key infrastructure decision factors to avoid overstock and imparted his knowledge about the initial set-up process.

Attendees were brought up to speed on digital print design, simulation, and production including key developments in color management for inkjet printing. AATCC President and Spoonflower’s Senior Vice President of Research and Development, Kerry King, spoke about the web to print business model. Spoonflower offers digitally printed fabric on-demand to the creative community—now over 3.5 million individuals who can create their own design or choose from a selection, helping fashion designers who need urgent prints to complete their collection and interior designers who need a few yards of fabric for custom window design, for instance. All fabric gets printed in Durham, NC, USA or in Berlin, Germany. More recently they have expanded operations to offer cut and sew for interiors with Roostery.

King described print-on-demand characteristics such as the printer platform, substrate type, ink chemistry, and finishing requirements. She says there is evolving research in the works to improve pigments for digital printing on natural fiber fabrics. In addition to developments in the pigments themselves, pretreatments have aided in colorfastness for pigment-dyed fabrics. Pre-treatments help ensure vibrant colors that are more dense, due to how they bond with the fabric.

Ensuring Quality

The current focus on speed to market has many working to determine how to eliminate days here and there, yet simply cutting corners isn’t an option if brands want to ensure quality. A big shift in mindset that is necessary is engineering in quality rather than inspecting for it in the end. Speaking on this topic was Texbase CEO, Joe Walkuski, who explained that if an organization is testing a finished product to look for phthalates or crocking issues in the fabric, or nickel in a button, it’s too late. “You’d be surprised how many big brands actually work this way” he says.

To solve this problem, Texbase provides brands like Unifi, Ascend Performance Materials, Everest, and others with cloud software that tracks R&D, manages testing from concept to compliance, and connects manufacturers, suppliers, and testing labs. He adds that Texbase works to support testing and specifications, adhering to Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs) and incorporating independent testing labs in a way the uses data (not documents) to enable customers to engineer compliance into their products from the start. “The fabrics and trims being used in a product should be fully vetted way before a designer ever gets to work with them.”

Also on hand to discuss software platforms was Suuchi Ramesh, who founded Suuchi Inc. in 2016 with a vision of bringing both technology and transparency to the forefront of manufacturing.  Suuchi Inc.’s proprietary software, the Suuchi Grid, connects brands with their shop floor in New Jersey, USA, allowing for full design manufacturing transparency and a complete end-to-end solution for their clients from fabric sourcing to product development, including creating tech paks. Suuchi, Inc.’s vertically-integrated supply chain replenishes inventory in as quickly as five days. They are offering two-week seasons and real time flows. The software will track and predict lead times with live macro data on sales such as colors and styles that are selling.

WTiN’s Lead Analyst, Mutlu Chaouch Orozco, pointed to the latest research on the use of digital twins at ITAA. Referred to as an “enabler technology”, digital twin software programs represent physical objects; they are expected to drive the impact of Internet of Things in many industries. Using digital twin software, you could create a digital version of your factory to simulate virtual tests and monitor performance which will allow for detection of mistakes earlier, improving effectiveness by 10%. A recent study  found that 13% of organizations implementing IoT projects already use digital twins, while 62%  are either in the process of establishing digital twin use or plan to do so.

Technology is impacting the way that materials are developed and allowing for brands and manufacturers to rethink the production process with a new approach to quality assurance.  New technology means new opportunities for shared data, increasing efficiency and also ensuring quality early on in production and during production. Brands that cannot sacrifice quality for speed to market will need to invest in these technologies in order to keep pace with the changes in the industry. Digitally connected workflows and digital printing will be a trend that continues to gain attention from business leaders, product developers, designers, and merchandisers as more industry events showcase more new technology.

AATCC Digital Printing Conference 4.0
December 11-12

AATCC will hold its fourth Digital Textile Printing Conference co-sponsored with Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) on December 11-12, 2019 in Durham, NC, USA. Now in its fourth consecutive year, attendants will hear from industry experts on the following topics:
  • Global market conditions and economic forecasts for digital textile printing
  • On-demand printing
  • Latest developments in design software, design considerations and best practices for digital textile printing
  • Technology advances in digital textile printers, inks, and production/raster image processor (RIP) software
  • Digital textile workflows
  • Case studies
  • Textile finishing and cut-and-sew
  • Automation in digital textile manufacturing
  • Test methods for digitally printed textiles
  • Emerging business models in digital textile printing
  • Digital transformation and its influence on supply chain relationships
  • Color workflow and designing for digital textiles