State-of-the-art equipment, precision cutting heads, advanced software. No, this is not a description of an automotive factory. This is where your latest suit or favorite pair of jeans was produced.
To see the cutting room of today, you would hardly believe that the apparel industry traces its roots back to seamstresses hand sewing a tailor-made garment using needles and thread. As the industry evolved from tailor-made to ready-made, the technology evolution has been exponential. Today's cutting room does not simply deliver fabric pieces anymore — it is a source of productivity, efficiency and cost savings. With manufacturers facing an onslaught of challenges such as shortening product lead times and shrinking margins, technology within the cutting room can deliver a competitive advantage.
The past few decades have seen technology developments that are revolutionizing cutting room capabilities. From increased automation to machine configurations, new advancements are allowing apparel manufacturers to do more with less, and ultimately be able to reach an increasingly fickle consumer with the right quality garment at the right time in the right place. While technology developments have been numerous, the areas of machine innovations and improved integration within the cutting room have made the greatest impact.
Cutting machine innovations
When fabric accounts for 50 to 80 percent of the total cost of a garment, fabric consumption cannot be ignored. Cutting is the stage in the product development cycle where the risk of fabric waste is the highest, yet offers great opportunities for optimization. Today's most efficient cutting machines are built on a foundation of Lean principles to do exactly that: eliminate waste. Yet technology innovations have gone beyond just eliminating waste to increasing process control, minimizing non-quality costs and optimizing machine availability.
With cost control becoming increasingly important to remaining competitive in the fashion and apparel industry, enhanced visibility and control throughout the cutting room has become paramount. Machines now equipped with visual management tools, and real-time dashboards have access to more information about operational performance, allowing operators to exert greater control during the cutting stage. Moreover, such information helps companies take advantage of continuous improvement opportunities over the long term.
Machine advances have introduced the ability to handle both a higher compressed fabric height and faster cutting speeds, allowing companies to cut more material at one time and improve speed to market. Yet, higher throughput is only advantageous when consistent quality is guaranteed. In an industry where poor quality results in increased costs and lost time, machines are rising to the occasion — featuring innovations that marry process speed with a perfect quality cut each and every time.
Innovations such as dynamic vacuum control make this a reality by keeping the fabric spread fixed, which ensures uniform quality is achieved throughout the cutting process. This helps provide consistent quality as well as increased productivity since more plies can be cut. Anti-error systems also automatically detect anomalies such as blade breakages, helping to reduce human error, ensure safety and increase accuracy. Finally, video-assisted spread and alignment controls provide a real-time display of material corners and edges, enabling a more accurate starting position and eliminating unnecessary operator motion.
Often, machines are built with embedded sensors to monitor ongoing performance. This level of visibility, combined with real-time technical support, enables companies to take predictive maintenance actions. In turn, this helps achieve maximized machine uptime as high as 98 percent.
The ability of select cutters to work in continuous mode has also advanced cutting room capabilities. Most cutters work in a sequence: the fabric is placed in the cutting area, cut and transferred to the offloading area. This sequence can result in operators being overburdened with removing cut pieces and frequently having to stop the cutting process so they have time to remove the pieces. On the other hand, cutters that work in continuous mode supply a constant stream of cut parts, reducing the number of operators needed for offloading, and increasing overall productivity by nearly 10 percent. Because the pieces are moved on as they are cut, the machines are more compact, and the space this frees up can be assigned to other tasks.
Cutting machine innovations have made tremendous strides toward eliminating production bottlenecks, improving speed and enhancing productivity. Today's advanced cutting machines are now able to deliver world-class operational excellence. Machine capacity in terms of the maximum number of plies that can be accommodated as well as cutting speed has been greatly enhanced. A combination of reliable technology, readily available replacement parts and consumables, and effective technical support can now ensure maximum machine availability. Optimal uptime results in improved costs, increased throughput and fewer idle operators.
Apparel manufacturers work under constant pressure to improve process efficiency and speed-to-market, and reduce costs in order to remain competitive. Clear integration between software and hardware, enabled by today's available technology, has enabled manufacturers to face these challenges head on.
Advanced cutting rooms use integrated software to control and integrate all steps involved in the cutting process. Manual cut plans can run rampant with human errors; by automating the process and not relying on the planning ability of an operator, companies can generate the most efficient cut plan possible and guarantee cutting quality consistency. An integrated cutting room also saves time by optimizing and automating the information exchange between sites and stages — from marker-making to cut order management to spreading to cutting. Together, these elements can deliver productivity increases in the range of 15 percent to 30 percent and fabric savings of 2 percent to 5 percent.
Companies must now create collections that are renewed more frequently and are made up of a large number of models and variants. Today's software can configure various types of information such as material widths, color and pattern piece spacing. Furthermore, marker planning and marker making can now be directly linked, helping to maximize efficiency regardless of the number, frequency or timing of order changes. This level of collaboration allows for a significant reduction in production cycle time and an increase in flexibility.
Technology has raised the bar on the cutting room floor, shortening product lead times, increasing the number of styles produced and improving costs throughout the production process. Moreover, by using advanced cutting machines that integrate powerful software, companies can continuously optimize their resources, thus accelerating return on investment and improving profitability. Good design may be what catches a consumer's eye, but what goes on behind the scenes is what allows companies to survive and thrive in such a competitive industry.
Jahmin Lee is communications manager for Lectra North America.