by Cassandra Balentine
Digital print speeds continuously edge up, but true productivity is only achieved when bottlenecks in the process are eliminated. Finishing steps—specifically cutting—benefit from automation. In the garment space, automated finishing tools help manufacturers meet demands for faster time to market and variety.
For high volumes, pattern making and cutting can be a challenge. Features like advanced, automated media handling; sophisticated software tools; and optical solutions make the process easier, more consistent, and efficient.
Automated cutting systems continue to advance, incorporating technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
Automation in Demand
Several trends attract garment manufacturers to automated cutting. This includes both laser- and blade-based systems.
According to Steven Leibin, president, Matik, Inc., driving forces for automated cutting in garment manufacturing include shorter production runs; creative, unique decoration of garments; less waste; improved sustainability; reduced cost; and digitalization of workflow.
Ron Ellis, director of product management, Gerber Technology, says customer demand has increased and buyers want their garments faster than ever before, while still getting the same quality and fit they’ve come to expect. Additionally, he points out that styles are changing very quickly and order sizes are getting smaller in quantity but more diverse in variations.
The lack of skilled labor is another reason manufacturers turn to automated finishing. “In the garment industry in particular, there is a high turnover rate and manufacturers no longer expect operators to stay at a factory for years,” admits Ellis. Automated finishing tools accelerate time to market, improve the quality of the final product, and minimize costs. “Automation also enables less skilled labor to be used and allows for quick training of operators for consistent high quality and production.”
It also effects the global digital movement of data and specifications, which Ellis says makes it easier to share information across the supply chain.
Specific to lasers, Leibin notes they are being used to precisely cut garments and deliver a clean fused edge in synthetic materials. “Lasers are also used for marking and cutting garments for decorative effects,” he adds.
Software and Workflow Tools
The digitization of the garment industry is happening from start to finish. Software is increasingly important to ensure accuracy and consistency for high-volume garment cutting, especially as run sizes decline along with turnaround times.
Machines are driven by CAD software and generally numeric control files derived from CAD, which provides the geometry and attributes for a given piece in a product. “We call it the ‘designer’s intention,’” says Ellis.
Designers are experts in the look, feel, fit, drape, and color of a garment, but not necessarily experts in manufacturing. He explains that experts in manufacturing develop production CAD patterns that will assemble and meet the designer’s intent and specifications. This CAD data is then used to drive the manufacturing process and the machines and people that produce it. “Digitization of the process eliminates human error and allows for effective and timely communication. It also provides single-sourced data, which reduces lead time and offers insight into the workflow where critical decisions can be made about changes to orders.”
“Accuracy and digitalization is key as downstream automation continues to develop. We invest millions of dollars towards this effort, developing solutions both internally and with strong best-in-class partners so that we can create a shared, connected digital solution,” admits Ellis.
Gerber introduced an IO Module, which provides data to downstream processes regarding work orders, jobs, and pieces that have been cut so that the digital stream does not end in the cutting room. The company also released a print-to-cut technology to support web-based consumers, ensuring that what is sold is what is made.
Leibin says SEI Laser’s exclusive software can read a range of files and allow prepress to setup job parameters offline, allow cut-on-the-fly job changes, and improve throughput. Plus digital job files can be stored in memory for instant recall.
Zund America, Inc.’s MindCUT Studio Production V5 is a modular software solution. The MindCut Studio Production basic package contains all the essential functions for the different phases of textile and leather processing. With a variety of additional options, the software can be tailored to individual needs, which includes data import, material selection, nesting, contour cutting, and sorting for textile cutting.
Advanced media handling, including conveyors and vacuums, prevent errors and distortion.
For example, Summa America’s L Series laser cutter features a conveyor system ideal for the continuous production of rolled material as it automatically transports cut parts out of the machine. The cut shape of the bed allows for vacuum extraction from underneath. The material is held down by means of the vacuum, which results in a clean cut and also precise transport movement through the working area. The conveyors are encoder driven and use endless wedgetooth belts for precise movement.
Edge detection is another media handling function, where printed roll material is presented to the conveyor, using a motorized roll handling system.
In the Summa L Series, as the roll unwinds, a loop is created in the material. This loop is kept constant with the use of a light sensor. As material is taken up by the conveyor, the motorized roll handler automatically feeds the material out. The fabric moves back and forth to adjust for telescoping or uneven rolling of the textile by detecting the edge of the material. The edge detecting de-reeler ensures that the edge enters the machine at the same point continually. The loop also relaxes the material so all fabric tension is removed before cutting, reducing distortion and ensuring an accurate cut.
Zünd’s G3 cutting system features energy-efficient vacuum turbines to ensure reliable material hold down during the cutting process. The vacuum area is divided into zones, which can be switched on and off individually across the width of the machine.
Additionally, Zünd offers a center winder, which is a roll-off unit that provides wrinkle-free unwinding/rewinding of flexible, rolled materials. The pneumatic shaft can handle rolls up to 220 pounds.
The center winder accommodates heavy rolls on a highly stable shaft that secures the core with pressurized air. This allows for flawless unwinding of rolled materials. Shaft locks on each side permit easy roll changes without the need for tools. The system lends itself well to using lifting aids for switching heavy rolls. A dancer system maintains constant material pressure and is adjustable from two to six kilograms. In addition, the dual dancer bars can also be used as passive roll-off unit for smaller, lighter rolls. When in use, the pneumatic shaft locks the roll in place after each advance, which keeps the roll from recoiling or unraveling. When the system detects the end of the roll, unwinding stops automatically. This is the case even if the end of the roll is taped to the core. The motor-driven center winder can not only unwind but also re-wind materials automatically, which is ideal for returning materials back onto the core. This rewind function requires the optional bi-directional conveyor system.
Increased use of barcode scanning and vision systems are designed to make the cutting process easier and error proof.
Ellis points out that barcodes provide an exact path to specifications and other information such as work order, purchase order, style, size, fabric specification, and techpack. “As automation with vision is implemented into the digital process, automatic barcode scanning can provide digital instructions and data for the next step in the process. Barcodes speed up processing and tracking and greatly reduce human error. They will have a similar impact as barcodes have in the grocery and shipping industries.”
SEI Laser’s systems include a barcode reader that can be used to automatically call a job file delivering on-the-fly efficiency.
Summa’s L Series professional laser cutting systems feature camera recognition to quickly scan materials and to automatically create vectors for cutting. Alternatively, the marks can be accurately read by the camera, allowing for intelligent analysis to compensate for any deformations.
Additionally, Summa’s L Series cutters feature optional vision technology that quickly scans the material on the cutting bed, automatically creates a cut vector, and cuts the whole roll without operator intervention. This eliminates the need to create cut files/designs. With a click of a button, any design file loaded into the machine is cut with quality sealed edges.
These optics are especially helpful for finishing garments that involve high volumes of pattern making/cutting.
“Customization is a big selling feature. Customers want personalized and unique decorations in their garments. Being able to deliver creative optics in high volumes delivers a way to differentiate products and add value,” says Leibin.
Ellis adds that digitizing the workflow of the flexible goods industry helps to reduce lead time, material waste, power consumption, and labor costs. Today’s trends push for new styles and looks. “Style cycles are short and travel at the speed of light on the internet. It is critical that decisions made in one city or country are accurately communicated to the supply chain regardless of where they are, what language is spoken, what time of day it is, pandemic or not. By digitizing the workflow the CAD-to-cut process is streamlined and data is maintained.”
Emerging technologies like robotics and AI are making their way into garment finishing, and continue to advance into this space.
“Robotics and AI are waves of the near future, closer than everyone thinks,” shares Leibin. “Everyone uses AI daily via facial recognition on phones, social media sends you articles, and voice assistants make recommendations. Robotic automation and Industry 4.0—AI—deliver improved speed to market and further cost reductions.”
Leibin believes ecommerce production workflows benefit greatly from Industry 4.0, automation, and AI creating a digital production workflow that integrates seamlessly with a digital front end ordering system.
Ellis expects robotics, AI, and digital workstreams to help make the garment industry more “green.” He says the dream is to only produce what is sold to eliminate billions of garments that are not purchased annually. “Today the industry operates on forecast and strong marketing to promote brands. It is a bet that what is produced will be sold. As the value stream is digitized, the industry can produce more accurately to the consumer wants, needs, trends, and product movement. Ultimately this will easily reduce tremendous waste.”
AI and robotics are in use today, which comes in especially handy with the increased need for remote monitoring.
“Today a typical factory employs hundreds or thousands of people to produce a garment,” says Ellis. “The real cost of this is not represented in what we pay for clothing. The profit is purely in the volume produced. The brand/retailer is betting that x percent will be sold at full price (~one month), n percent will be sold at 30 to 35 percent reduced price, z percent at cost, y percent at a loss or scrapped. Rinse and repeat.”
AI can eliminate the waste by making accurate predictions as to what is needed, when, and where. “Software can enable ‘build to suit’ so that the consumer can ensure they are getting the look, style, and fit they need. Robotics can ensure the quick turnaround of that product without re-training the workforce on the great variation of products,” offers Ellis.
In an example of robotics for digital cutting systems, Zünd’s G3 cutting system offers an automatic router bit tool changer (ARC) designed to reduce set-up times and simplify tool handling. The magazine accommodates up to eight different cutting, polishing, or engraving bits. The bits needed for processing are automatically removed, clamped, initialized, and cleaned after each use. The ITI initialization system checks the zero point after each tool change, ensuring perfectly consistent routing depths with the ARC.
For garment manufacturers, automated cutting solutions bring convenience and integrity to an increasingly complex situation. The ability to confidently offer customization and short runs with fast turnaround times means more business and an improved bottom line. IPM
Jun2021, Industrial Print Magazine