By Olivia Cahoon
The textile production process includes several parts, from planning and design to development, sourcing, production, and tracking and selling. It benefits from automation software, with a number of programs available that allow for better collaboration between each step.
Textile manufacturers utilizing digital print technology should consider investing in automation software, including end-to-end solutions as well as programs that target one specific point in the process. Doing so allows manufacturers to achieve consistent results as well as reduced time to market, decreased labor costs, and improved efficiency.
Above: X-Rite’s i1Pro 3 Plus provides the ability to quickly and efficiently create color profiles on a variety of substrates.
Automation Helps Customization
Automation is integral in a digital textile environment. It helps manufacturers create custom textiles with improved color accuracy and consistency without the need for human labor.
Consumers demand garments that fit perfectly and feature unique designs. Digital textiles open the possibility of customization, which affects consumer behavior and ultimately forces the industry to evolve from mass production to mass customization. “Everybody talks about a new industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, which is defined by automation and intelligent robots,” shares Matte Gusse, VP, Advanced Color Solutions.
Manufacturers work in an evolved market. When dealing with custom garments, they are forced to rely on human labor for unrepetitive tasks. This means high production costs and it makes it difficult to run a scalable business. According to Gusse, the only thing that can help textile manufacturers overcome these challenges is automation that adapts to the reality of today’s market, driven by customization.
“Automation is essential for success in a digital textile environment,” agrees Leonard Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology. It allows for better collaboration between each stage of the production process, reducing time to market, improving customer lead times, and decreasing labor costs.
Automation also typically results in higher quality parts and improved production rates because there is less room for error. Marano says those who don’t embrace automation will likely have a harder time keeping up with future technology.
Textile manufacturers focused on automation tend to achieve consistent results with improved efficiency and tracking. Color accuracy and consistency is particularly important in the textile home and apparel markets. Victoria Harris, textile specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., believes the development and advancement of color and RIP software that automates and improves the process plays an essential role. “Automated processes and technology keep track of print jobs, orders, and settings used by repeat customers—all which support improved throughput and speed to market.”
While a textile production process can technically survive without automation software, the rate of its success will not be as high as those who do decide to invest in some type of solution.
Without automation software, a textile production process won’t be as competitive in today’s market and will likely fall behind, admits Marano. “At some point, those who do not invest in automation will either go out of business or be absorbed by larger, more scalable companies that did.” Manufacturers may also have higher costs and struggle to grow customer bases.
Expectation for faster delivery, customization, personalization, and the ability to rapidly develop new designs also requires automation. “Consumer expectations of most textile products require true just-in-time, on-demand manufacturing and only automation makes that possible,” offers Jim Manelski, business development manager, textiles, Summa America.
It’s particularly difficult for manufacturers to survive without automation in areas where labor costs are high. Automation can replace most human elements that create error, work with different skill sets at different speeds, or create other productivity lapses, shares Andy Arkin, strategic account manager, Zund America, Inc. “Automation brings consistency and reliability with predictable results every time.”
In direct-to-fabric printing, automating the production process achieves optimal results that compete with more traditional conventional printing processes. Customers expect fast turnaround in addition to consistent, repeatable digitally printed graphics or patterns on their textiles. “Accurate color in the digital print world is only achievable through automated software,” adds Harris.
Full Automation vs. Designated
When it comes to automation software, textile manufacturers can select an end-to-end solution that automates the entire production process or solutions that address automation at only certain parts of the process. Different levels of automation are required based on the manufacturer and customer base.
Today, most manufacturers have different automation tools for different stages of the production, usually from different providers. It’s important that these tools exchange information between them in order to have a seamlessly integrated end-to-end production workflow, otherwise a big share of the advantages are lost. “It’s like running up the stairs with a USB stick in your hand to deliver a document to a colleague two floors up, instead of sending an email,” offers Traian Pindaru, senior product specialist, CAD/CAM business unit, Gemini CAD Systems.
Where and when to implement automation solutions is based on the products, business scale, average order size, and how the workflow is batched. According to Marano, manufacturers that do one-off orders sporadically may not need a robust production planning software tool. However, it is crucial for every business to have some type of digital design tool.
“The data responsible for driving your production has to come from software, and even if it comes directly from your customers, sometimes adjustments need to be made prior to cut and sew,” he explains.
End-to-end solutions are well suited for apparel manufacturers that do everything from sourcing the textiles through design development to printing and finishing. Harris believes these solutions are necessary to track and manage all of the different stages of the process in real time.
On the other end, businesses selling customized textiles with only a few small accessory products through an online ecommerce platform typically don’t have a need for product lifecycle management, pattern making, or print-and-cut software automation packages. “Companies will focus on their business and needs and adopt the specific technologies and software systems that improve their processes and products,” she says.
While full end-to-end automation may not be required for all textile manufacturers, full end-to-end communication is. “It is essential that everyone involved from the design to production is accurately communicating color standards,” comments Ray Cheydleur, printing and imaging product portfolio manager, X-Rite, Incorporated. Using physical and digital Pantone guides—which are available for multiple materials including cotton and other textiles—helps ensure accurate color communication.
Defining Your Needs
To determine if an end-to-end solution or a specific automation program works best, textile manufacturers should look at their current automation processes and identify changes for overall improvement.
The first step to determining the appropriate level of automation needed requires manufacturers reviewing their production and determining immediate needs and requirements. Michael Rabin, country manager for the Americas, Morgan Tecnica Spa, says that once manufacturers start this process, the other areas that need to be addressed are automatically uncovered.
“It’s a process we have seen many times and within the company the first step is the most difficult, but once started, it is clear what the next areas to automate are,” he explains.
Jonathan Rogers, international marketing manager, Onyx Graphics, Inc., agrees and thinks understanding current production problems is a good first step. Manufacturers should observe current processes and understand the workflow bottlenecks, material waste, and all manual production steps.
Based on this evaluation, manufacturers can identify what level of automation is required to improve overall production, whether a specific part or end to end. “A lot of specific automation software solutions on the market have a significant impact on reducing manual touch points in prepress, providing data on consumable usage, and automating some of the post-printing activities,” continues Rogers.
It’s also important to determine how much of the process textile manufacturers can take on in house and at what scale. Harris suggests manufacturers start with automation technologies and software required for their current business workflow and adopt more and scale their business appropriately as they grow.
Because equipment and technology changes often, it’s important the solution the manufacturer selects is open and works well with others. “The last thing a company wants is to be locked into a proprietary solution that is closed and prevents changes or upgrades to a part or parts of the workflow,” warns Arkin. While this type of solution can be best in class today, it may lose value over time.
Identifying Key Processes
If a manufacturer chooses to address only certain areas of the textile production process, there are parts that benefit more from automation than others.
Different levels of automation are required based on focus and customer base. In wide format textile printing, Rogers says the term automation is about saving time, reducing manual error, and increasing print capacity to do more with less. “Automation is paramount because it helps accomplish these goals.”
For example, selecting software designed for automating job submissions, setting up print jobs with options such as page size, and applying automated color management controls to synchronize and proof color management settings across devices are beneficial.
Marano finds that the production process benefits from automation because it ensures textiles are printed and cut with high consistency compared to manual methods. “As the manufacturer scales their business, product consistency is critical to the ability to grow efficiently,” he offers.
For manufacturers concerned with material costs and inventory, intelligent nesting and smart picking can impact the bottom line instantly with less waste and faster throughput—both at the printer and cutter level, adds Arkin.
What to Consider
Before looking at automation software for textiles, manufacturers should have an idea of where the business may position itself in the future as well as current production problems.
Textile manufacturers should approach automation goals similar to a business plan. The first thing to consider is who will buy the product, how much someone will pay for it, and how much it will cost in manufacturing. The competitive advantages should then by analyzed. Pindaru believes in asking questions like, “If I’ll be able to deliver faster than my competitors will I be able to sell more products or increase the selling prices?” are important.
Textile manufacturers should also keep in mind where the business will go in the future. Most manufacturers need software that’s scalable as their business and product offerings continue to grow.
“Software is not just an upfront investment, but an investment in time when it comes to implementation and training,” advises Marano. “You don’t want to have to change software every few years due to slight shifts in the market, your production workflow, or product offering.”
The type and scale of automation that a textile manufacturer implements differs based on business size, location, and service offerings. Understanding current production problems can help manufacturers address process and workflow bottlenecks, material waste, and all manual production steps. “Automation software can reduce manual touch points in prepress, provide data on consumable usage, and automate some of the post-printing activities,” shares Rogers.” This yields higher quality output, faster turnaround, and lower operating costs.
Automate Textile Production
From design to the final print, the textile production process benefits greatly from automation software. A variety of programs are available that help automate textile production, including end-to-end solutions and tools that only serve a specific part of the process.
Before selecting automation software for textile production, manufacturers should review current process and determine where automation is most helpful. It’s also important to consider the business’ future automation needs.
Apr2020, Industrial Print Magazine