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Why Textile Micro-Factories Will Change the Future of Fashion

Here, resident digital printing expert Debbie McKeegan shares the benefits of emerging micro-factories in the Fashion and Textile industries. Debbie is the CEO of TexIntel – an expert advisory practice serving the Creative, Digital and Print Textile manufacturing Industry.

Traditional textile manufacturing is changing, as never before, and after many years in development, multiple technologies are now available, offering the manufacturer a sustainable option to conventional production.

Traditional textile business models for volume production carry intensive risk and are heavy in their use of resources. With a need for sustainable supply traditional suppliers are switching to the lighter footprint of the textile micro-factory, printing and manufacturing on demand and in any volume, minimising stock and its associated risk to increase profitability.

The T-shirt factory was the trailblazer, utilising digital print technology, DTG (direct to garment) printing facilitating customised manufacture. And now, the Fashion, Swimwear and Athleisure sectors are all following suit. In doing so each can rationalise their workflow, and offer the client “just in time” manufacturing.

The Traditional Model

The traditional textile workflow, in summary, takes a design and creates a product, then produces large quantities in a bid to achieve the necessary economies of scale, generating huge stocks that are then transported to storage and called off to meet retail demand.

But this method of manufacture doesn’t meet the demand of the millennial marketplace.

The traditional model is fraught with risk at every turn. The manufacturer and retailer are unreasonably exposed during all cycles of this model, whether it is speed to market, value of stock, or simply consumer relevance, and this has spelt continuous economic difficulties for the fashion market.

No longer can a textile manufacturer using this model possibly predict the out turn of his investment. In a market using extended financial credit lines and, where often because of close outs and clearances, this model leads to reduced yields and offers a meagre return on investment. Unsold stock has become an onerous burden for the fashion industry.

The economic dynamics of this textile model are well known: profits grow slightly, stock grows in line with profits, until the time is reached when all of the profit is in the stock – and then the question is, what is the stock really worth?

The manufacturer continues on his course, hoping that a good season will allow him to write off part of his stock, and increase his profits at the same time. But history has shown this often to be a false hope, and large firms have tumbled to the economic realities of stock-age and the effect of large scale write downs.

The Digital Textile Revolution

The dawn of the Digital Textile Revolution has seen the textile micro-factory provide a model that turns this traditional textile model on its head.

Developments in CAD/CAM, augmented reality software, online workflow, laser cutting, and – above all – digital textile printing are providing a way forward that is risk averse and lean in its consumption of resources.

The primary difference is that the micro-factory is demand and not production led. The micro-factory paradigm is “Sell, Produce, Deliver,” and not “Produce, Sell, Deliver”. In this system, which is driven by an online sales presence, alongside AR and AI software, the client selects, buys and pays for their product before the item is produced. Production and delivery are after the sale, and not before it, and therefore cash flow is not an issue.

Relying on the speed of image processing, computerised workflow, digital printing and cutting and with computerised sewing (as an option) then dispatch, the textile micro-factory is capable of producing and delivering in 24 hours – something the traditional model could only serve from a huge and expensive stock.

This business model was first used by direct to garment (DTG) Printers, who would be able to deliver a sale within 24 hours of payment having been received. Holding only blank T-shirts, this producer was able to service demand by creating and approving artwork, sending it to print, then packing and dispatching, all within the timeframe expected by the customer.

Typically, the benefits of this production model included: small use of space, meagre consumption of utilities, local based production, and customised production of exactly what the customer requires, with no guess work.

The economic out turn is predictable, with no overstocks, no credit, and with a terrifying speed to market, profits have been exemplary. It’s a small wonder that the DTG model has grown to encompass and attract many other sectors, with Athleisure, Swimwear and Fashion taking up the opportunity to rationalise their production systems.

As technology has grown, roll-to-roll digital textile printing, pattern cutting, grading and nesting software, alongside laser cutting technologies, have all played their part in delivering a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods.

In this model, first the online E-commerce tool uses all the visual space of the selling website to make an extended offer in terms of product, colour, size and design. When online orders are received, they immediately go into a computerised workflow, where the artwork is completed, the customer contacted and, upon approval, the production is initiated, all within a matter of minutes.

Scheduled into the print run the product, now a series of nested images sent to the printer, is produced on a continuous roll of fabric with printed guides for the laser cutting. Once printed and fixed in a continuous process, the fabric pattern is then cut using a milli-metrically accurate laser cutter, which delivers the pattern pieces to the sewing department ready to be finished. In the sewing department, pre-programmed computerised sewing machines (sewbots) or manual hemming complete the operation and the product is then ready to be packed and dispatched.

At all stages in the process, workflow software tracks the progress of the item and ensures that set delivery and quality objectives are met.

The result is a seamless and speedy production model, light on risk, low on resource usage, and, ultimately scalable in modules to suit business size.

In-House Manufacturing with Micro-Factories

Encouraged by the micro-factories’ economic benefits, we now see a huge swing towards in-house manufacturing for many fashion retailers, eager to control their supply chain and with the added benefit of speed to market and local manufacturing to improve sustainable supply.

As the technology moves on, when considered against the vast resources required for the traditional model, the micro-factory is proving increasingly attractive to Fashion, Swimwear and Athleisure brands.

Freed from the shackles of manufacturing, the micro-Factory offers a viable alternative to multiple industries. Traditional printing housed in large factories use vast amounts of energy, water and precious resources. The micro-factory offers sustainable manufacture, producing textiles printed using digital textile printing. The machinery is a fraction of the size of traditional machinery and, as well as being small in dimension, also uses fractions of the heat, light, water and power consumed in the traditional textile manufacturing model.

The micro-factory model is infinitely adaptive. A huge online range can be serviced efficiently and profitably, without enormous warehouses, without the risk of clearances, and without the uneconomic use of scarce cash reserves.

The millennial consumer demands infinite choice and the micro-factory offers the solution. Providing an infinite range of design and product, that’s flexible enough to react and produce AI trend driven supply, all within the envelope of a sustainable and profitable environment.

Product choice, speed to market, sustainable supply and profitable production in a risk-averse environment are the new paradigms for the Textile industry. It’s no wonder then, that the micro-factory model is being hailed as a new dawn for textiles, with the promise that its efficiency and profitability will bring manufacturing back to a more local base, offering jobs for workers in the country of origin.