Shima Seiki pins hope for fashion revolution on knitting machine
In the middle of last year, as the world’s largest clothing retailers began their annual barrage of pre-fall knitwear ads, Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo took its campaign in an unexpected direction.
With a touch of nerdishness, Uniqlo posted an advertisement about the revolutionary industrial process behind their new collection of seamless knit dresses. It was new territory for clothing manufacturers, who more often try to downplay the way their products are made. In a hat-trick to one of Japan’s lesser-known engineering marvels, the last shot lingered on the MACH2XS Wholegarment knitting machine that makes the clothes.
The ad was quirky and eye-catching, but the campaign was more than a gimmick. The machine, made by Kansai-based precision engineering company Shima Seiki, is at the heart of what the company and a handful of key customers such as Uniqlo and a number of major Chinese subcontractors see as a real revolution in manufacturing. It is also seen as part of the answer to the garment industry’s waste problem – a particular horror in the parsimony region of Kansai, according to Shima Seiki chairman Mitsuhiro Shima.
Just as the development and refinement of 3D printing machines is considered by some to be the forerunner of great changes in manufacturing and distribution, the idea of “3D knitting” pioneered by Shima Seiki also has the potential to change geography. of the garment industry, to allow for more factory automation and speed up cycles for a new design.
The machine produces an entire garment – including arms, collars and other parts that would normally be produced separately and sewn – on a single machine using a single thread. By streamlining production so aggressively, its makers say, the Wholegarment machine addresses two of the biggest challenges for manufacturers: wasted material and, especially in Japan, shrinking manpower due to declining production. the population of the country.
For Uniqlo, who has grasped the machine’s potential and spent the past three years building an army, Wholegarment technology, combined with increased volume and precision of customer data, offers the prospect of personalization. Consumer clothing such as dresses and suits will theoretically be produced to the exact size of the end customer.
“Uniqlo has put a lot of effort into creating a new production system based on the latest knitwear manufacturing technologies, while achieving joint product development with Shima Seiki,” said Shuichi Nakajima, group manager for production at Uniqlo’s parent company. , the Japanese fashion group Fast Retailing. He says Uniqlo’s collaboration with Shima Seiki and their machine was part of a larger quest to improve the quality and design of supply chain processes.
Shima Seiki began developing its Wholegarment machines in 1995 and has continued to perfect them ever since: in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019, the company sold 1,521 machines worldwide. Liu Jingyuan, an analyst at Goldman Sachs who tracks Wholegarment sales in Asia, predicts that annual sales will be about double that of the fiscal year ending March 2021. The main bottleneck, Liu said, will be parts shortage rather than final demand.
Supply capacity shortages, technical issues and staff training are areas Shima Seiki will need to address in the short term, advised Mr. “We believe Wholegarment machines provide solutions to these problems,” he said.
Shima Seiki’s machine – which others have tried and failed to emulate – can be found at the company’s factory in Kansai Textile Heart, Wakayama, just south of Osaka. Inside the factory, engineers report one of the world’s most sophisticated glove-making machines, a device that produces an entire knitted glove in minutes from a single piece of yarn, dramatically reducing waste. From there was born the idea of making larger and seamless clothes in the same way.
This conceptual leap, says Shima, was key. Companies such as Uniqlo, H&M and Zara have pushed the boundaries of fast fashion and cheap mass production of high-end clothing. Over the past 20 years, the volume of delivered products has doubled, while unit prices have more than halved. The advantage, according to Mr. Shima, whose company also produces conventional fabric-making machines, is that people can buy clothes inexpensively.
The downside is that about 20 to 30 percent of fabrics sold in solid colors are wasted in the manufacturing process, he says. “For fabric with a pattern, the waste level can reach 50%. About 30 million tonnes of yarn, or 30% of the annual total, is thrown away.