Mass customisation, direct-to-consumer sales models, drastically reduced delivery times, sustainable production and the strong influence of social media on buying decisions are all contributing to the continued rise of digital textile manufacturing.
The advances in digital textile printing were without doubt a highlight of ITMA 2015 in Milan, but by the time of ITMA 2019 in Barcelona, it will be very clear that these machines are no longer working in isolation, but increasingly as components in extended, digitally-linked process chains.
During 2018 for example, a group of market-leading print businesses have come together to demonstrate the SportsFactory, for the creation of individually-customised football shirts, ahead of this year’s World Cup in Russia.
The SportsFactory, sponsored by customer Dover Digital Printing, links the technologies of Caldera, MS Printing Solutions, JK Group, Monti Antonio and Zund – all of whom view ITMA 2019 as a must-participate event – to show how automation can be employed to connect an entire production chain. This extends from the initial design of the shirt through the printing and cutting – with only the final sewing still requiring human input.
The football shirts are printed on an MS Printing Solutions JP4 digital printer using Kiian inks from the JK Group. The MS-JP4 can print up to 180 linear metres per minute, with eight printheads and an ink system that can support custom colours. Once printed, the sublimation heating solution for the shirts involves a Monti Antonio calender machine, followed by cutting on Zund finishing equipment.
The entire process is driven by Caldera’s RIP software, initially with the design and customization of the shirts using a Web2Print solution. This is followed by prepress automation to send the print files to the RIP. The Caldera software then drives and tracks the print-to-cut process across the printer, calendar and cutter.
Digital technology is also extending to finishing, as illustrated by the latest Project FLX (future-led execution) being pioneered by denim manufacturer Levi Strauss.
This new operating model digitises denim finish design and enables a responsive and sustainable supply chain at an unparalleled scale. By replacing manual techniques and automating the jeans finishing process, Project FLX also radically reduces time to market, putting the company on a path to eliminating thousands of chemical formulations from jeans finishing.
Specifically, Project FLX is enabling the company to:
- Replace manual techniques and automate the time-consuming, labour-intensive and chemical-reliant process of hand-finishing.
- Create ‘photo-real’ finished garments digitally with a new imaging tool that is said to be so accurate that the digital files can be sent directly to the vendor and quickly scaled to mass manufacturing.
- Take advantage of on-demand and even hyper-local production capabilities. By delaying decisions on final products until much later in the process, Levi Strauss can radically reduce its lead times from more than six months to as fast as weeks or days in some cases. This is made possible by staging garments that await their on-demand finish order closer to the market.
- Eliminate thousands of chemical formulations from its supply chain.
“With this new model, we can deliver the products we’re known for in an incredibly responsive and responsible way,” says Liz O’Neill, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for Levi Strauss. “The advanced imaging capability is a game-changer for us, and something that has eluded our industry for years.”
“The digital transformation is now largely being driven by brands and retailers looking to produce faster, change collections more often, and reduce both stocks and supply chain waste,” observes Ronald van den Broek, general manager of sales for Mimaki Europe, another manufacturer of digital printing technology and ITMA exhibitor. “We hear from our customers that they can now receive orders on a Saturday and have stock in stores the following Saturday – a speed previously unheard of in the industry.”
Digital processes are also going some way towards addressing the massive amount of pollution attributed to the textile industry, he adds.
“Governments, especially in Europe, are moving to rein in this high level of pollution, especially as it affects water quality. As more textile manufacturing moves to digital, we will see less pollution by the industry. With the productivity of the latest machines, manufacturers of both garments and home textiles can take advantage of digital technology to reduce their environmental footprint, establishing more sustainable operations while also providing brands and retailers with the benefits they are seeking.”
The influence of social media on all of this change should not be underestimated. Generation Z – young people born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s – have used the internet since a young age, and they are generally comfortable with technology and with interacting on social media.
According to Pascal Montfort of REC Trendsmarketing in Paris, influencers are more than ever a crucial part of successful branding.
“The high-end brand Fear of God’s denim collections sell out immediately at around US$1,000 per pair of jeans, while bringing no particular innovation to the market,” he observes. “The endorsement of high-profile celebrities such as Kanye West, Rihanna and Justin Bieber have contributed significantly to this demand.”
The ability to respond immediately to the clamour for such limited-edition products, however, is of course enabled by digital manufacturing technologies, in alignment with advanced online sales logistics.