By Cassandra Balentine
In manufacturing, every aspect of production counts. To ensure streamlined production of digitally printed textiles, it is essential that finishing be up to par to avoid bottlenecks.
The demand for automated textile finishing is apparent. “Whether in fast fashion, just-in-time inventory, home furnishings, or flag production, there is constant pressure to produce more, better, faster, and with less manpower. Beyond that—especially in garments—customers increasingly look for more personalized, custom products where automation is key to making them affordable,” says Heather Roden, strategic account manager, Zünd.
Above: The Eastman Eagle C125 conveyor system is ideal for both single- to low-ply cutting requirements.
The Automated Advantage
Customization, personalization, and shorter runs drive demand for digital print when it comes to production with digitally printed textiles. Therefore, there is a need to automate the finishing—especially cutting—aspect to accompany the new demands digital affords. With an automated workflow, jobs are produced faster with less expense.
Automation allows factories to produce shorter product runs to feed a growing demand for mass customized products, fast fashion, and quick turnarounds for consumers with a “see now, buy now” mentality, shares Leonard Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology LLC. These trends aren’t just unique to one particular segment, as he sees similar ones in apparel, transportation, home and leisure, sign and graphics, and packaging.
Giovanni Disanto, sales and marketing, bierrebi, suggests that today, automation is one of the most relevant competitive factors for many manufacturers in different markets, including fashion, automotive, medical products, and home textiles. “In each of these industries, automation is crucial for quality improvement and cost competitiveness. Over the past years, technology has completely changed the nature of manufacturing in many different aspects. Most phases of production are much less labor intensive. Advances in technology have caused automation to become the single most significant competitive advantage for many manufacturing companies, allowing mass production at an incredible speed, with great quality and repeatability. Furthermore, automation can be applied to any phase of production and to any individual process of every manufacturing setting.”
Manufacturers gain time and reduce labor through automated finishing. For example, Steve Aranoff, VP marketing and business development, MCT Digital, says a large fabric print operation can save five to ten shifts per working shift as one person can operate a digital finisher compared to five to ten people hand cutting, plus a reduced need for sewing.
For companies new to automation—particularly in the cut room—Marano says throughput and accuracy improvements are exponential. “Aside from improving performance, manufacturers gain consistency, predictability, and visibility. When selecting an automating solution, it is so important to look beyond the equipment—as a significant portion of the value from automating comes from having an integrated solution that connects to your value chain from planning and design through production.”
These benefits drive the demand for automated finishing of digitally printed textiles used in manufacturing settings.
Automation has progressively affected the textile industry for more than 50 years with the inception of computer-controlled equipment. Marano shares that historically, high levels of automation were found in mass production factory environments where manufacturers produced hundreds of the same product. “According to our customers and several industry sources, the majority of supply chain leaders state that finding and retaining labor is their biggest challenge. This is largely because most millennials no longer want to work in factories. So, in today’s market, automation is providing factories with alternatives to rising wages and hard-to-find labor without having to relocate their operations.”
Elizabeth McGruder, VP, marketing, Eastman, agrees, and suggests automation is pushing those working with antiquated and unprofitable manual processes to make expedited decisions about equipment and software investments. “In order for them to compete in the marketplace, their process—from concept through design and cutting—must be done faster, cheaper, and with fewer people.”
Further, digitally printed textiles represent a big growth area for grand format digital printing companies. “This is partially due to the fact that fabric is ‘greener’ than the heavier materials that came before it, and more technology is being developed to make it easier to use fabrics for banners, and soft signage,” says Aranoff.
Cutting digitally printed fabric requires precision, accuracy, and advanced media handling. Integration is another critical element. In general, cutting digitally printed textiles requires a combined effort of a camera system, software algorithms, and a high-precision cutting system.
McGruder explains that typically, a high-resolution camera system is combined with special software to ensure that the cut path around printed shapes; registration mark detection; or pattern matching for stripes, plaids, and florals is accurate. The camera system scans the surface of the fabric as it enters the cutting system. Together with the software, it identifies the geometry and distortion of printed elements. This type of camera scanning system can be installed on conveyor or static table-style digital cutting systems, both of which are used industry wide for furniture, apparel, sportswear, advertising, and other general industrial fabric cutting requirements.
Looking more into laser and vision tools, Roden explains that due to challenges with cutting/finishing digitally printed graphics—particularly related to stretch, skew, and potential wrinkling—digitally printed textiles require a lot more registration marks printed along with the graphics to ensure accurate cutting.
“The algorithms behind reading register marks with Zünd Cut Center’s (ZCC’s) registration workflows—using an integrated Over Cutter Camera (OCC), guarantee both efficient, reliable capture and cutting accuracy. Since having the beam-mounted camera travel to each mark for capture is time consuming and can potentially take longer than the actual cutting, Zünd now offers the OCC camera system, which captures all registration marks visible in the cutting area in one shot, dramatically reducing overall processing time. This feature alone potentially increases productivity by 30 percent or more,” says Roden.
Marano points out that there are a few reliable options on the market for cutting digitally printed textiles—all with varying levels of throughput and accuracy. “Most systems require some sort of vision equipment or laser to pick up registration marks on the digitally printed textile.”
In Gerber’s case, the ContourVision scan-to-cut system scans the fabric and picks out a border line on the printed patterns. The ContourVision system then generates a cut job based on the location of the border line. This not only eliminates the process of scanning registration marks, but also the need for an operator to bring up a cut file. The fabric is then cut on the GERBERcutter Z1 single-ply cutting system. The border line is added to the graphic pattern in the AccuMark software and sent over to a RIP PC along with an embedded ICC color profile to maintain color integrity in the printing process. This further demonstrates the value of an integrated solution because the setup allows users to control the entire process and seamlessly pass data from design to printing and on through to cutting.
bierrebi targets consistent quality, higher productivity, and time-critical customer requirements through the Crystal system, a solution designed to optimize the cutting process in a range of applications—fashion, furniture, automotive, and medical. Disanto says this single-ply cutting system guarantees a higher manufacturing efficiency, greatly reducing operation costs.
The Crystal system embraces the green concept of lowest power consumption. According to Disanto it does not require suction to retain the fabric on the cutting area. In this way, the energy expense proves to be much lower compared to other cutting systems. In addition, the machine’s cutting area features a special glass surface, which offers less wear and greater flatness than other conveyors. The quality of mechanical components and consumables is brought to a minimum, contributing to further reducing maintenance costs.
Crystal performs a precise cut due to a double blade system. Its two blades separate the material through pressure, without forcing any fibers or pulling the fabric threads, guaranteeing a well-defined cut. It features a vision system that includes hardware and software for image management and pattern matching placements. A high-resolution camera captures the fabric texture and the latest generation software creates the best placement, which is quickly converted to a cutting file.
Aranoff points out how well suited lasers are for this type of work. “A laser is ideal as it doesn’t touch the textiles and can easily cut through bubbles without potentially grabbing the textile and ruining the cut. In addition, when textiles are placed in frames, new methods for compensation are required. Between longer jobs with dye-sublimated textiles in particular, new software tools are also needed to handle the cutting accurately and efficiently.” He says MCT’s TigerVision is developed to handle these challenges well.
An integrated production workflow is another consideration.
According to Marano, an integrated solution that provides an end-to-end value chain connection is part of the appeal automation offers. “This is where industry 4.0, Internet of Things, and cloud management comes into play. Having a connected automation system that receives data directly from CAD or planning software gives manufacturers more control and visibility over what’s going on in the cut room, while reducing time to market by improving throughput and reducing opportunities for human error.”
ZCC offers the ability to support the operator with automated job setup functions as well as a materials library with factory-tested and user-definable cutting/finishing profiles. “These ensure the best possible processing methods and cutting parameters are used for the job and materials at hand,” shares Roden. The benefits lie not just in fast production time, but also in minimized waste of factors like setup time and materials. “As an example specific to fabric cutting, ZCC may suggest its high-speed, blade-based driven rotary tool, alternatively its laser module is ideal for fabrics prone to fraying and applications where simultaneous cutting and edge sealing helps eliminate an additional finishing step,” she adds.
There are other considerations that specialized tools address.
To minimize the potential for stretch and wrinkling, hardware solutions such as the Zünd cradle feeder are effective. “This device controls the flow of the material onto the cutting table with little or no tension, ensuring the material is perfectly spread and laid out on the cutting surface, without any folds or wrinkles that will adversely affect cut quality,” comments Roden.
Another feature of bierrebi’s Crystal is the Slide Away system, which is designed to speed up the production process and increase productivity. “In particular, this new configuration moves and unloads the cut pieces from the cutting area. In this way, the machine keeps working continuously while an operator collects the material just cut. Because of all its features and high performance, Crystal represents a huge innovation in single-ply cutting. Constant research and development (R&D) activity keeps Crystal innovative and always ready for addressing the quickly evolving needs of the market,” explains Disanto.
McGruder comments that a static table cutting system is ideal for rapid prototyping, R&D work, as well as full-volume production. “Many textile cutting facilities utilize this type of machine to ensure consistent repeatability over long pieces or the ability to cut very intricate markers that have little room for error,” she offers.
Eastman’s static table system is capable of cutting, marking, and punching virtually any flexible material at speeds of up to 1,500 millimeters per second. Precision racks and rails on the machine in the X and Y axis and the ability to adjust motor settings help achieve position.
On the other hand, a conveyor cutting system offers identical cutting capabilities to the static table, plus the added ability to continuously convey rolled material goods with consistent speed and control. McGruder explains that a conveyer uses less floor space while cutting pieces that are infinitely longer than the table area. For mass production requirements, Eastman manufactures high-ply cutting systems for compressed material stacks of up to three or 7.5 centimeters.
Before investing in an automated cutting solution for digitally printed fabric, it is important to consider several critical factors. While accuracy is often the primary demand of these devices, a variety of other considerations come into play.
McGruder points out that there are demands for accuracy of cut pieces; a reduction of expensive material waste; speed and throughput of cut parts; flexibility to cut many types of materials, thicknesses, and properties on one system; the ability to mark/label parts or identification to reduce post-process operations; fully-automated facility communications from system to system; and robotics for piece collection. “This goes industry to industry from garment manufacturers to furniture or décor products.”
Roden says some shops struggle with the safety issues of hot knives and other manual cutting devices. “We have seen issues as well with workflow inefficiencies—for example when digital printing equipment needs to be taken offline because of a need to make up for piece shortages. Automating these systems and workflow limits the potential for error and ensures process reliability. Greater productivity achieved through piece nesting, registration-mark reading optimization, and potentially even robotic piece picking integration can completely change an area known for bottlenecks.”
Marano believes the demand for custom made, short-run products is increasing. In addition, line speeds for digital printers have grown significantly over the last several years and manual cutting cannot keep up with the volumes coming off the printer. Incorporating an automated cutter into a digital print workflow is essential to eliminating bottlenecks and keeping an operation flowing efficiently and synchronous. “This is true regardless of industry segment,” adds Marano.
Another crucial objective in deciding to invest in textile finishing automation is to meet the requirement of rapidly changing customer trends. “Immediate purchase is more common, a clothing or a homeware company needs to speed up all of its processes related to producing and marketing new products. Online purchasing has created the need for quick, on demand manufacturing. In addition, customers increasingly expect high-quality products at an affordable price point,” suggests Disanto.
Manufacturers benefit in many ways from automated finishing in textile production, including a more productive workflow that requires fewer operators, allows for minimal mistakes, and enables shorter, customized runs at a cost-effective price point.
Oct2018, Industrial Print Magazine