Laser Technology Can Produce More For Less In The Textile Garment Industry

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Mike Horsten, writing for Summa, asks: can the past determine our future in textile for the garment industry?

It’s funny to see how things change or better yet, don’t change in the textile industry. I have been working for more than 20 years in this industry. During these years, I found that change is the most difficult and least accepted by the manufacturers and producers.

Over 20 years ago, we started the digital revolution, transforming the analogue textile print to digital printing. I noticed how traditions and common ways are hard to break. The way we produce garments has not changed. The textile-producing world seems not to care how to increase the margin structures through technology but only via cost-cutting. There is no need to change or innovate, according to many, just lower the wages and get cheaper raw materials. We have been doing it this way for years and we are happy with this way.

Why change if it works?

These are many of the comments and responses I get from customers and vendors in the industry. Why change if it works, right? Well, you are wrong!

Looking back into our technology history I see a lot of similarities. Like in the early days of the mobile phone, most people thought ‘I don’t need this, I have a phone at home’. Then came the internet and people said, ‘I have a fax, why do I need this email and this new web thing.’ When the smartphone arrived people said, ‘Its a crazy gadget that nobody would use.’ The same sentiment goes for the textile workflow – we have doing it like this for hundreds of years, why change now?

In the digital print industry, we have seen that printers have not changed much in the last 20 years. Yes, they became faster, better print quality and more colours are currently available, but the principle is still the same.

We print sublimation inks on paper and transfer to the polyester substrate via a calender. First, the printing was done via screen print, then offset and now we use digital printers to do the same. The reason for the change to digital was the benefit of smaller runs and better quality. We could also save on the screen and plate cost. So, we changed because of financial benefit, not technology. But the finishing of the garments is still very much the same and again has not changed at all.

Textile finishing process

Let’s take a look at the processing of polyester sportswear fabrics. We lay them up on stacks to cut them to pieces by hand with dangerous up and down cutting devices. After cutting, these pieces are bundled in hundreds of items, which are extremely hard to keep track of in any factory. We also overproduce at least 10% for the just-in-case situation. As we really don’t know how many we might exactly need due to errors and failures.

Then we have the issue of sizes. Most volume garments are made in XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL, but the specials like cycling garments are made to fit one person. Let’s also not forget the amount of labour involved in this process. Many companies don’t even cut these pieces themselves but hire external companies to do this work for them. The result is hidden cost and less control on the production side.

Of course, we still need to colourise these fabrics. So, we place the printed paper on the calender table and have one or two people place the white fabric cut pieces on the correct location on the paper. Mistakes are made by misplacement or using the wrong textile at the wrong place. The cost of labour is again underestimated. I’m not even talking about the optimal placement of the printed items on the paper, nor about the amount of wasted paper. The hidden cost is again the keyword.

After this process, the pieces fall behind the calender and yet another person needs to sort them by type or even by a single shirt or pants. This is important, as you don’t want my front side on your backside. Trust me, it will look strange. Also, the organisational complexity of this and making sure that the right pieces arrive at the right sewing station is always a stressful job and prone to mistakes.

How technology can take the process to a higher level

Using barcodes could solve some of the above mentioned issues. They are used at times but, have we come up with the right solution to keep track of all? Partly yes, but the use of it in the textile industry is minimal and it’s only good if it all works correctly and they are not cut off in the process.

Funny, the solutions are there. The better workflows can be integrated into the current working conditions, the more the margins will increase. Software and control systems could be a solution, but the essential change is not software, a new developed MIS system or control station. The answer: cutting garments with a belt-driven automatic laser cutting device that cuts from the roll and only one operator needs to do the picking. Laser cutters have a great benefit if used correctly.

Things you need to know about laser cutters

Most cheap glass tube lasers will not give you the quality nor the speed needed for the production of sportswear garments. The issue here is mostly the cheaper CO2 lasers. They burn the polyester fabric because the cutting fumes are leaving the cutting area too slowly. The result is small polyester bubbles in the material that can irritate the skin. This is absolutely a no-go in the textile garment industry.

So, up until now, lasers have not been used a lot in the garment industry due to these reasons. Apart from that, it’s a different process. You need to print sublimation inks on paper and transfer directly onto the uncut fabric (roll-to-roll). Later, you can insert the roll into the laser cutting device to cut the shapes needed.

A couple of things needed to improve the process

A metal tube laser is essential to get good results. It is long-lasting, more precise and has a stabile laser for up to 10 years of production time. So, it’s cutting much more accurate and it’s fast. There is still one problem: remember the burned bubbles due to cutting accuracy and fumes. To avoid this, you need an incorporated fume extraction and fume dispersal technology that cleans the cutting area of fumes. Now it’s getting complicated right? Not really because there is a solution at hand.

The L Series Laser cutters just introduced to the market late this year from Summa nv is one of the first devices on the market that fits this description. Summa also included a conveyor belt in the machine that transports the fabrics totally relaxed. This ensures the fabric is not stretched or pulled, so there are no sizing issues nor cutting errors.

Looks like we are starting to see some margins coming back in the business. There is a solution for the textile garment industry to produce more for less, but would we use it? I believe yes because laser cutting is an essential part of an automated workflow. We just need to understand that this technology will bring more for less, just like the mobile phone that we ‘did not need’.

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