Automation in the textile industry has brought with it an increasing need for better communication within the manufacturing plant, as well as between manufacturers at different stages of the supply chain. Dialogue between people is one thing, but getting machines to speak to one another is a whole new challenge—a digital Tower of Babel that has become the focus of the move toward Industry 4.0.
The first Industrial Revolution demanded a major relocation of the workplace, from cottage industries largely in rural settings to factories in urban areas. Resulting upheavals had a big impact on all aspects of workers’ lives and saw the migration of populations from the countryside to the cities. The fears held by Luddites (people opposed to increased industrialization or new technology) that jobs would be lost to machines did not materialize; instead, more employment was created—but with new skills and work practices needed. The digital age has seen some industries transform, some industries vanish, and other industries emerge. Reassuringly, Industry 4.0 embraces both the digital and physical. PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) noted this succinctly in its 2016 report “Industry 4.0: Building the digital enterprise,” predicting that “successful companies will become true digital enterprises, with physical products at the core, augmented by digital interfaces and data-based, innovative services.” But what is this likely to mean for the textile industry?
Location, location, automation
There have been a number of stimuli for the move toward Industry 4.0 for the textile sector, with many of these factors now converging for a harder push. With current growth in technologically advanced and smart materials, a single product can necessitate the spread of manufacturing processes across continents—bad for both the economic and environmental balance sheets. Relocating close to company headquarters and a concentration of consumers makes sense on both counts. Industry 4.0 is being positioned as one means of bringing manufacturing back to the northern hemisphere, and in particular bringing higher skilled production and employment.
Anton Schumann, a partner at Gherzi (a global management consulting and engineering company headquartered in Germany), sees a shift in the traditional value chain as essential. His vision is an industry move from the traditional model, that stretches from raw material through production through distribution to the consumer, to a more agile model that reduces those steps to just three essential components: raw material, disruptive technologies and consumer. But as enticing as this may sound, there are complexities that need to be resolved—most notably, opening communication channels between software and equipment manufacturers.
The speedy factory
The Digital Textile Micro Factory was showcased at the TechTextil 2017 trade fair in Frankfurt last May and brought together some of the leading manufacturers of digital technology, from CAD software to digital printing, sewing and final assembly, to demonstrate how interconnected these functions could be under one roof. Although demonstrated on a small scale, the speed from start to finish was impressive, with sewing the bottleneck, as might be expected. Individual manufacturers, though welcoming the technology, are also cautious about safeguarding the data released to potential rivals. The next stage in realizing the micro factory to scale in the market requires machine and software developers to work out a way to share information and still protect their individual intellectual property (IP).
Adidas is already implementing plans for a Speedfactory in Germany, with Siemens AG working with the brand on the digitization of the concept. The sportswear company plans to use advanced technologies such as robotics and 3-D printing to create a more automated and flexible manufacturing process, simplifying the supply chain and reducing shipping in the process.
Siemens has developed a suite of digital tools, Digital Enterprise, that mimics the full production process of the Speedfactory, allowing it to be simulated, tested and refined before the actual factory is built. The new factory format offers the potential for efficiencies on many levels, from communication across different stages in the production process to just-in-time manufacturing that reduces waste generated by unsold stock. Gerd Manz, vice president of technology innovation at adidas, says that “by digitalization of the value chain, we will be able to implement new technological innovation more quickly, make more efficient and transparent use of the resources available, and so respond more flexibly to the individual needs of our consumers—to give them what they want when they want it.”
There are two distinct strands to the emergence of Industry 4.0 in Asia. The first is the uptake of machine and software technology by manufacturers in the apparel sector to achieve greater productivity and meet the demand by workers for higher wages. As an example, look at the changes in products such as sneakers that have gone from using more than forty different materials in a single shoe to just a few advanced and often functionally gradient materials. The second strand is the high-technology sector in Japan, which has long embraced robotics, one of the key technologies in Industry 4.0.
The automotive industry has led the way in automation. In North America, Henry Ford introduced the production line approach to manufacturing before the 1930s. In Japan, automotive manufacturers have led the way in robotics for manufacturing. Koichi Mabuchi is curator of the exhibition Industrial Robot (2017) at the Nagoya City Science Museum. He estimates that 70 percent of the world’s industrial robots are manufactured in Japan, attributing this to the country’s cultural background: “In European countries and the United States, there is a belief that humans have been created in the image of god, and therefore there is a resistance to create things like humans.”
A more likely explanation is Japan’s long history of industrialization and automation that dates back to the Karakuri automata of the Edo period (1603–1868). Both Nissan and Toyota began as textile companies. Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota, played a major role in the industrialization of Japan and in particular the development of the country’s textile industry. In 1906, he invented a circular loom that was designed to weave wide pieces of fabric, quietly and using minimal energy. Today, both the automotive and textile industries are highly automated, with some of the leading textile machinery producers located in Japan. It’s probably simplistic to attribute the industrial readiness of the Japanese textile industry solely to historical relationships, but it is certainly an important factor, and points to an openness to new technologies. Of the top ten robot manufacturers in the world, five are based in Japan: Fanuc Corp., The Yaskawa Electric Corp., Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., Epson Robots and the Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. Add to this the presence of major textile machinery manufacturers such as Shima Seiki, and it becomes apparent just how well prepared the textile sector is to exploit the potential of Industry 4.0.
These technological advances offer potential benefits to the consumer in providing just-in-time manufacturing and through that, customization. In North America, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is manufacturing customized prostheses at its 3-D Medical Applications Center. The patient is scanned to gather individual measurements before using additive manufacturing technologies to ensure that the final fit is fully customized. Klaus Helmrich, a member of the managing board of Siemens AG, visualizes this as the future of manufacturing: “The social trend towards greater customization coupled with new technologies capable of actually fulfilling these expectations will permanently change many production processes.” It could create a system that, in effect, offers benefits to industry, people and the environment.
Marie O’Mahony. an industry consultant and academic, is the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson, and a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.
Steam. Electricity. Computers. And now Industry 4.0, the “smart factory,” in which machines, devices, sensors and people must interconnect and communicate, not only in production but in problem-solving and decision-making. And with that come questions about data security, reliability and stability, technical problems—and the loss of high-paying human jobs.
The Digital Textile Micro Factory showcased at TechTextil 2017 involved the participation of many leading manufacturers, indicating their willingness to engage with these new manufacturing technologies.