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Thread: Dyeing to Go Digital

Photography: Ofir Abe, Model: Stav Ben Yoel for Say Talent

In his first guest post for WhichPLM, Alon Moshe, Co-Founder & CEO of Twine Solutions, shares some insights into the transformation of the dyeing landscape. Twine is an award-winning technology company that has developed a proprietary and revolutionary digital thread dyeing system, and a digital dye to match mobile application.

In fashion, the era of digital transformation is in full swing. With every passing month, more brands, retailers, factories and suppliers around the world are turning their analogue processes into digital ones, with the goal of creating a faster, more efficient, more environmentally-sound shared value chain. As someone with a long history in the industry, this is an extremely exciting moment, because it creates the opportunity for real, lasting disruption in areas of the apparel business that have remained untouched for far too long.

At the time I write this article, WhichPLM has just released its 2019 Buyer’s Guide, which features a wide range of different technologies that are each designed to take a manual or analogue process and recreate it digitally or, better yet, enhance it or automate it at the same time as digitalising it. This is really what people mean when they talk about digital transformation, whether it’s in creative design or collecting customer feedback: taking information, generating tasks and adding their inputs and outputs to a single, end-to-end flow of information and insight.

There is another side to digital transformation, though, and it’s one that isn’t talked about as much: taking physical processes and tasks that have a physical component, and figuring out how they can be managed, visualised, or even completely disrupted using digital methods. The vision for Industry 4.0 (or smart manufacturing) relies on this sort of transformation, with smart, connected machinery now steadily appearing in factories. But analogue manufacturing processes have been slow to digitalise because most of them have stood still for so long that we, as an industry, have forgotten just how slow, inefficient, or outright harmful they can be.

Digital material printing is a strong example of this trend for disruption to come from unexpected places. Companies had become so used to sourcing greige and other fabrics overseas and then having them finished in bulk, that they rarely, if ever, stopped to take stock of its downsides or look for an alternative model. Then a new generation of digital printers, capable of conducting short print runs with no minimum quantity and no need for international shipping, came along and showed us a huge leapfrog moment. Now, thanks to a digital technology, a brand can take a process that used to be done on the other side of the world and bring it back in-house, getting to market faster, cutting costs and realising a host of other benefits.

That’s the level of digital disruption I want to talk about today in my area of expertise: thread and yarn dyeing.

For decades, thread dyeing has been a deeply traditional process: slow, littered with challenges, and performed at great cost to the companies commissioning it, as well as to the environment.   So while it might not be the most exciting part of garment creation, if we think about it for a moment we’ll soon see that thread dyeing is long overdue for digitalisation.

The standard dyeing process is typical of the way a lot of manufacturing processes have worked until recently. A brand or a retailer commissions an order for a large number of spools of a particular thread type and colour. The factory or dyeing facility then attempts to colour-match against the buyer’s order. If the colour is approved (usually after more than one attempt) the customer orders the dyed thread, waits for it to arrive, uses it in sewing, knitting or embroidery, and later stockpiles the unused spools to possibly use in the future.

There are definite downsides to dyeing this way:

  • Buyers are forced to order in bulk, so that factories’ economies of scale can come into effect. This leads to brands holding stock of excess thread that is unlikely to ever be used again, or to stock-outs where a common thread needs to be re-ordered at short notice.
  • The manual dyeing process is time-consuming. Across colour matching, approvals, dyeing, curing, and logistics, it can take weeks for a brand to order lengths of thread and have them delivered.
  • Traditional thread dyeing is a specialist discipline that few companies have the knowledge base to bring back in-house or even in-country, so dyeing houses command a high price for their services.
  • Creativity and experimentation are restricted. Due to long lead times and the need to dye in common, single colours, product teams rarely order new colours or mixes. They worry that colour matching will prove harder with an untested colour or combination, and that they may be left with larger quantities of unusually coloured thread that could be difficult to re-use as a result.
  • Dyeing damages the environment. Dramatically. Over 20% of all clean water used globally in a single year is fed through the fabric dyeing process to become effluent, and 10% of global energy is eaten up the same way. Traditional dyeing methods also, unquestionably, produce more pollution than any other part of the apparel value chain: 21 billion tons of waste are emitted, and more than 70 different toxins are fed back into the water table in some of the most at-risk areas of the world.

But how do we digitalise a process like this, where most of the issues arise in places we can’t physically touch, and where the core of the activity seems so fundamentally bad for the environment?

When you first think about it, it seems like the answer could be putting digital tools into dyeing factories so they can better coordinate their production processes, improve efficiency, minimise pollution, and cut time to market. But, just like we saw with digital printing, technology actually offers a completely different path, a chance to revolutionise the process, rather than just streamlining and improving on what already exists.

Photography: Ofir Abe, Model: Stav Ben Yoel for Say Talent

Digital thread dyeing is now preparing to disrupt the manual dyeing process completely, offering a closed loop system that can be set up in just a few square metres in a factory or brand headquarters, using no water and emitting no waste. A special ink is mixed into a recipe at the moment of dyeing based on exact CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black colour standards) values, then applied, treated, and lubricated – all within a single machine.

Using a digital thread dyeing system – like our proprietary, trademarked Digital Selective Treatment (DSTTM) – every downside of the traditional dyeing process can be addressed:

  • With the ability to dye only the exact length of thread required for a particular prototype or sample, there is no requirement to order anything in bulk besides plain, untreated polyester thread. This means no dead stock, and no waiting for new stock, since additional thread can be dyed on demand.
  • Thread-dyeing can happen almost instantaneously. Unlike traditional dyeing processes, there’s no need to wait for a digitally-dyed thread to dry before use, or to treat it further. And since the system can be installed almost anywhere with a few metres of floor space, delivery is instantaneous.
  • Digital dyeing democratises the dyeing process. Where traditional dyes are mixed by hand to match a subjectively assessed value, digital dyes are right first time, based on standard colour values.
  • No commercial or practical restrictions are placed on creativity. Feel like creating just one experimental product sample with a multi-coloured gradient thread? Digital dyeing can produce just the amount you need, in colours that wouldn’t be possible using existing methods.
  • Digital dyeing emits only internal waste, uses no water, and can consume comparatively little electricity when compared to the energy needs of large factories.

Delivering this kind of disruption (and the benefits it brings) represents, for me, the next step in the digital transformation of long standing manual processes. With the right blend of material science, physics knowledge, and industry experience, technology providers have the opportunity to completely overhaul one of the most time-consuming and costly analogue links in the supply chain.

In our case, I and the team of material scientists, engineers, and mathematicians at Twine Solutions have packaged our proprietary digital dyeing system into a machine less than 2 metres wide, that requires only special ink cartridges and a standard electrical connection to do what traditional dye houses would take weeks to achieve. So, whether you produce knitted garments, sewn products, woven materials, or even quilting or embroidery, our plug-and-play TS-1800 digital dyeing system and the associated SnapMatchTM colour matching application could digitalise and revolutionise one of the most problematic physical processes in your supply chain, and take the industry quickly and easily over one of its biggest hurdles on the way to digital transformation.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.