Lasers Are The Future

Can the past determine our future in textiles for the garment industry?

Similarity of the past

Looking back into our own technology history is see a lot of similarity. Like in the early days of the mobile phone, most people thought “I don't need this, I have a phone at home”, then came the internet and people said, “I have a Fax, why do I need this Email and this new web thing”, when the smartphone arrived people said, “Its a crazy gadget that nobody would use”. The same goes for the textile workflow we have doing it like this for hundreds of years why change now.  

In the digital print industry, we have seen that printers have not changed much in the last 20 years.  Yes, they became faster, better print quality and more colors are currently available, but the principle is still the same. We print sublimation inks on paper and transfer to the polyester substrate via a calander.  First the printing was done via screen print, then offset and now we use digital printers to do the same. The reason for the change to digital was the benefit off smaller runs and better quality. We also could save on the screen and plate cost.  So, we changed because of financial benefit not the technology.

But the finishing of the garments is still very much the same and again has not changed at all.

Polyester Sportswear

We take the polyester sportswear fabrics, lay them up on stacks for cutting them to pieces by hand with dangerous up and down cutting devices. These pieces after cutting are bundled in hundreds of items, that are extremely hard to keep track off in any factory. We also overproduce at least 10% for the just in case situation. As we really don’t know how many we might exactly need due to errors and failures.  Then we have the issue of sizes, most volume garments are made in XS,S,M,L,XL,XXL, but the specials like cycling garments are made to fit one person. Let’s also not forget the amount of labor involved in this process. Many companies don’t even cut these pieces themselves but hire external companies to do this labor work for them. 

The result hidden cost and less control on the production side. Then we still need to colorize these fabrics, so we place printed paper on the calander table and have one or two people place the white fabrics cut pieces on the correct location on the paper.
Mistakes are made by misplacement, wrong textile on the wrong space, forgotten items and the cost of labor is again underestimated.  I’m not even talking about the optimal placement of the printed items on the paper, lots of paper waste here also.

Hidden cost is again the key word.  After this process the pieces fall behind the calandar and yet another person needs to sort them by type or even by single shirt or pants.  This is important, as you don’t want my front side on your back side, trust me it will look strange.  Also, the organizational complexity of this and making sure that the right pieces arrive at the right sewing station is always a stressful job and mistakes happen here also.  Using barcodes could solve some of these issues. 

They are sometimes used but have we come up with the right solution to keep track of all. Partly yes, but the use is minimal in the textile industry and it’s only good if all works correctly and they are not cut off in the process. Funny, the solutions are there, the better workflow can be integrated in the current working conditions and the margins will increase.  Software and control systems could be a solution, but the essential change is not software, a new developed MIS system or control stations. The answer, cutting garments with a belt driven automatic laser cutting device that cuts from the roll and only one operator needs to do the picking.

The old way


Industry 4.0

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

- Einstein -

Laser Cutting for TEXTILES

Laser cutters have a great benefit if used correctly. There are some things you need to know, most glass tube lasers from China will not give you the quality nor the speed needed for the production of sportswear garments.  The issue is mostly the cheaper CO2 lasers burn the polyester fabric because the cutting fumes leave to slowly from the area where the cutting takes place. The result is small polyester bubbles that can irritate the skin are left behind.  This is a no go in the textile garment industry. So up to now lasers have not been used a lot in the garment industry due to these reasons. 

it’s a different process, you need now to print sublimation inks on paper and transfer directly on to the uncut fabric (roll-to-roll). Later you can insert the roll into the laser cutting device to cut the shapes needed. 

Differences to now about

There are a couple of things needed to make this happen well: A metal tube laser is essential to get good results. A metal laser tube is long lasting, more precise and stabile laser up to 10 years of production time. So, it’s much more accurate cutting and its fast. There is still one problem the burn bubbles due to cutting accuracy and fumes. You would need an incorporated fume extraction and fume dispersal technology that cleans the cutting area of fumes.
So it’s getting complicated right, no there is a solution at hand. The L Series Laser cutters just introduced to the market late this year from Summa NV is one of the first devices on the market that fit this description. Summa also included a conveyor belt in the machine that transports the fabrics totally relaxed, making sure the fabric is not stretched or pulled, so there are no sizing issues nor cutting errors. The very good automatic de-roller that is included in the system, also eliminates the telescoping issues that can happen at the calander station. The L Series de-roller automatically arranges and feeds the textile substrate perfectly for fast and excellent cutting. In the realization that operator errors can still occur, such as loading the wrong cutting file, would mean that the cutting shapes are not lined up with the fabric images. Even if the cut file is correct there is still a lot of lost time in reading all the markers that are needed to find the correct shapes and items on the textile print. Understanding this issue Summa came up with a fully automatic cutting system with a Vision camera. The camera detects the shapes that need to be cut and cuts these on the fly via an intuitive AI system and because of this, the laser can even keep on cutting while transporting the fabric on the fly. No loss of time and accurate to the mm. Looks like we are starting to see some margins coming back in the business. There is a solution for the textile garment industry to produce more for less, but would we use it? I believe yes, because laser cutting is an essential part of an automated workflow. We just need to understand that this technology will bring more for less, just like our mobile phone that we did not need. Mike Horsten ZEMT Consultancy – Textile Leadership

Learn More Visit the Summa Website