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Digital leading the way to a more sustainable textile & fashion industry

In previous blog posts I have spoken about the potential that digital technology holds to change industries and institutions for the better and I promised to further elaborate on that.

In previous blog posts I have spoken about the potential that digital technology holds to change industries and institutions for the better and I promised to further elaborate on that. That was over two months ago, so let’s get to it! I want to start off with one specific industry: Textile. More specifically about the connection between textile and digital technology in all its facets.

This industry doesn’t have the best reputation; it’s known to be pollutive, cumbersome, conservative and its working conditions in low-wage countries aren’t very kosher. It’s not as bad as Phillip Morris, but it’s fair to say there’s room for reputational improvement. We will look at the role digital can play to make a shift for the better and also which digital initiatives and innovations already exist.

Textile is a very diverse sector that ranges from fashion, to the bedding industry, interior design, healthcare and even the automotive industry. All these applications of fabric and the industries built around them are unique but there is a common ground. For one, fabric plays a key part in their company. They all have industrial machines or depend on them to process this fabric. And just like every company they have a business model that has to keep the company profitable. Digital can play a key role on every level here: on the level of the fabric itself, on industry level, and in the business model behind textile companies.

I want to take you through these 3 levels and see how digitization of the textile industry, fabric and business models is possible. I will explain the technology used, give examples of good practice, discuss the impact digitization has on planet, people or profit and also refer (where possible) to the active role Bagaar plays in this field.

The industry; moving towards Industry 4.0

Let me first refresh your memory on what Industry 4.0 is: Industry 4.0 is the buzzword that accompanies the emergence of smart factories in the 4th industrial revolution, the digital era. Smart factories have a high level of both automation and digitization. Machines are self-optimizing, self-configuring and slow Artificial Intelligence as well as machine learning can be unleashed upon the data these machines generate. An IoT layer is added to all particles of a factory so that all machines can talk to each other and other business units, like purchasing, transport, Sales and even HR. This will generate a superior level of cost-efficiency and the ability to match supply and demand seamlessly. The coming together of IoT alongside cyber-physical systems, generating vast data-streams on both internal and external affairs (customer insights, production insights,…) together make Industry 4.0 the prodigy it promises to be.

Now how can these smart factories become an established method in the textile industry?

In high-wage countries Textile process chains affect many companies along the production chain. In order to have these chains work on an Industry 4.0 level, all actors and all levels of the process need to be connected to one another. This is the first condition to make production more flexible and transparent. When machines can communicate with each other and are connected to an open interface, problems and malfunctions can be traced and reported immediately. Machines can even reconfigure themselves to better adapt to a changed situation. But let’s not forget the human in all this. As we see it, the human-machine communication will be of the utmost importance in the coming decade. Smart devices and wearables with mounted displays offer a huge potential for communicating in an intuitive, natural way with technology.

More research must be done but it’s obvious to me that in, for example, digital pattern making, on-demand production, optimization of production processes and transport through smart algorithms a lot of time, planet and profit is there for the taking. Some companies have already started to see the light.

Let’s dive in with an example and try to avoid the buzzwords for a moment, so that you can really understand the genius simplicity of these evolutions.

One example is efficient pattern cutting. This technology has existed for a long time already and is used by the most varied companies that have a textile aspect in their production process. Let’s take clothing for example. Normally in garment cutting you place 2D paper patterns on a piece of fabric, as close as possible to each other, and cut the patterns from the fabric, leaving a lot of scrap on the floor. It’s like when you’re baking cookies; the cookie dough that is leftover between the cookies (which you secretly devour) is what every t-shirt, pair of pants or shirt leaves behind. This could become a thing of the past. Patterns can be uploaded (or drawn) on a computer that can talk directly with the pattern cutting machine. The computer knows exactly which garments are in the production queue, which fabric they are made of and what size they have to be. It will use every piece of fabric to the maximum, combining and arranging the patterns like a true jigsaw puzzle! Making the connections between a smart algorithm, a machine and the program where orders come in, equals less waste and lower cost.

A step further is Direct Panel on Loom (DPOL) technology, also called Smart Tailoring. By using a computer attached to a loom, data such as color, pattern and size related to the garment is entered, and the loom produces the exact pieces -- which then just need to be sewn together or assembled. Weaving, fabric cutting, and patterning happen all at once. It’s like magic! This technology helps cut down fabric waste and saves energy and water by 70 to 80 percent. Talk about a win-win-win-win…. -situation.

How does Bagaar contribute in making this shift a reality?

One of our most loyal and important clients is BekaertDeslee, the global market leader in mattress fabrics. Everybody in the whole wide world sleeps on a mattress (or that should be the case) that gets tossed out and replaced almost every 10 years, just to give you an idea of the immensity of the sleeping industry.

BekaertDeslee has been an early adopter,with a digital-first mindset. If a problem needed to be solved the digital option was explored first. This has given them a head start compared to other players in the field.

Now what is it we did for them? First of all we digitized the entire fabric stock so that the whole company could consult it remotely (present in 19 countries). Then we made it available on iPad for sales representatives to take it to their clients (instead of a trolley filled with fabric). To support their sales we also developed a 3D configurator with mattresses for them to apply all these digital fabrics on. This small step made the sample production and shipping across the world drop significantly and it was an important step towards full production-on-demand. No unnecessary stock, waste or transport.

Right now we are starting to make their factories smart. Sample rooms are made digital, people, products, clients and machines are being connected to each other and given a user-friendly interface to interact with. The benefits of this development will be legion. To find out more you can go to our cases page.

So this was industry level, probably the most far away from your bed. But no worries I’m getting closer. Next up, the fabric itself!

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The fabric; making textile smart

Smart textile is a fabric that is designed and developed with technology included to add functionalities to the garment for the person wearing it. The potential applications of these textiles are practically endless. They can communicate with other devices about their host, conduct energy, transform themselves and provide protection adapted to its environment. Now how does this transcend the fun factor and become a necessity? Smart textile applications also include the release of medication, the adaptation to hazardous environments (climate), temperature regulation and monitoring heart rate, muscle vibration, … They can even be self-cleaning. Using fabric as a display is not even revolutionary anymore, yet it is a smart textiles application. But you can also think of smart mattresses, tracking your sleep or more importantly that of your baby.

The full potential, or more general impact and usage of smart textiles is yet to come, but one day, not far from now your shirt will clean itself while sending a message to the grocery list on your smartphone to order new deodorant. This could mean a great deal for countries with extreme weather conditions, with a lack of electricity, medication or clean water. It’s up to us to apply these new technologies to real problems and cooperate with experts who can help us with that. A close cooperation between the digital sector and healthcare or NGOs is needed to focus on meaningful applications.

Smart textiles are very closely intertwined with the IoT (Internet of Things) movement. It’s all about sensors, sensing whatever you can think of, and sending out the data they gather through low frequency networks to platforms arranging and interpreting this data and abstracting actions from it.

But the fabric story doesn’t end there. Just by making it smart you don’t necessarily reduce its initial footprint or legacy.

The fabric itself is also a possible source of misery for the planet, exploiting animals and using so much water to dye fabric that you could provide the whole Third World with clean drinking water. Demand for raw materials like leather already outstrips global supply, and climate change is exacerbating scarcity of materials by damaging the very environments needed to produce materials on which fashion businesses depend, such as cashmere and silk.

This is where material innovation and biotechnology could come to the stage. Take Shrilk, a transparent, compostable material made from discarded shrimp shells and proteins derived from silk, which is as strong as aluminium but half the weight. Cellulose based material like Viscose, Tencel or Lyocell and recycled fabrics have made their way into our wardrobes for some time already together with recycled material used for neoprene wetsuits for surfers, the famous Patagonian raincoats and even wool-scarves could be recycled. We are working towards a point where you don’t have to sacrifice comfort to have a conscious wardrobe. Now who wouldn’t want that.

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Fast fashion , Slow fashion, Fair fashion,...

Your biggest touchpoint with the textile industry is probably the companies and the business models that are built around this material. It’s what you see when you and your girls go out shopping.

But behind the catwalk, the cover of Elle magazine and your favorite confection store window lies a seriously resource-intensive industry with heavy impacts on planet and people. It’s called fast fashion. Every week a new trend, every month a new wardrobe. From 2 seasons a year, fashion conglomerates are pushing up to 6 seasons a year to their customers as if they were inevitable. Besides it being almost a full-time job to keep up with all this, the fast fashion companies have been given a bad name for their pollutive character and inhumane working conditions. The (not so) funny part is that this ‘fast’ industry is not so fast at all when it comes to adapting to the future and incorporating new technologies as you would expect. It turns out to be a very conservative industry. The fast character prevents them from thinking ahead and making sustainable choices or invest in R&D.

But no worries, digital is giving a kick at the can and shaking things up.

First and foremost because people have much more information at hand about the where and hows of their clothing. Thanks to the marvelous interwebs and all the open source initiatives concerning brand awareness large corporations are being held accountable for their social and environmental impact. But also in a more technical way giant steps are being made towards a more digital and sustainable fashion industry.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

First take off your shirt and pull it inside out (just kidding.) Take a look at the label. Chances are high it either says made in Bangladesh or in China. The fabric was produced in one place, then it was shipped in parts to these low-wage countries and there it was sewn together for a penny and provided with a label. After that it was shipped to your favorite local store, where it ended up in your hands. In my opinion this is far from ok. My clothes shouldn’t get to travel more than me.

Now imagine intelligent machines were used to sew together clothing as close to where they were ordered as possible, and only on demand. There would be no milage, no sweatshop and no need for stock-loss to provide you your favorite white T. Maybe next time you order one, you can even customize it, put your initials on it or change the colour (so your roomie can’t steal it anymore). Smart machines can be provided with a huge amount of variables in model, size, colour, embroidery etc. to make mass customization just a click away. If you are catching my drift you must have realized by now we can all be like Jean-Marie Pfaff in the near future! (Belgian joke, sorry)

The concept of mass production is seriously challenged in this model, because supply and demand can be in almost direct communication with each other. This is a nice example of how end-users can profit from Industry 4.0. and it’s not just wishful thinking, initiatives like this exist already.

How do we at Bagaar play our part in this shift?

Bagaar wishes to play an active role in building awareness around the digital possibilities for the textile industry as a part of our CSR policy. A lecture organized by the Flanders Fashion Institute led us to Martijn van Stien and his Post Couture collective. We decided to support this initiative as it is a great example of good practice.

But what is it? The Post Couture Collective introduces a new era in the production of sustainable and affordable clothing. Their vision is based on the principles of open-source, and they want to use 21st century technology. They work with high-tech material made from recycled PET bottles that can be recycled again after being worn. If you purchase an item you receive the garments as made-to-measure construction kits, or you can use a laser cutter in your local Makerspace after downloading the digital design online. This innovative way of producing clothing close to and with the end-user gives the garments an added value that mass-produced fashion can never attain. In local production facilities garments will only be made when they are sold, so left-over stock in stores will be a thing of the past. To accomplish their vision, they are building a global network of designers, technical researchers and production locations. In collaboration they develop online collections for production on laser cutters and 3D printers. This way the designs can be shared digitally and manufactured locally and on-demand.

Bagaar supports this initiative with our technical and strategic digital expertise. In the near future we will also partner up with the FFI and Post Couture Collective to bring a real maker shop to the public, making your clothes on demand, right before your eyes. We will also give a lecture at MOOI festival about the relationship between digital and sustainable fashion in Antwerp and you are all cordially invited, of course. (You will be spammed with correct dates and location, no worries.)

All these new developments are very promising but they bring out some important questions about information, privacy, transparency and the future of jobs. These are important aspects to think about, but don’t forget that Industry 4.0 is not only about opportunities for the economy. It is also about opportunities for society. It is equally important for the broad success of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that people are not afraid of new technologies, but see the possibilities and think about how to make the most of them. If we do Industry 4.0 right, not just industry will benefit, but society as a whole.

So to end this post just like the ones before; It’s up to you to help think about our digital future. It’s being shaped as we speak and we don’t want the architects to only be techies and big money. It concerns you and yours just as much. So please, join the conversation and inform yourself!

All images by our very own BAGAAR STUDIO

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