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Source: Walmart Today

A Seat at the Table for U.S. Textile Manufacturing

Who doesn’t enjoy plopping onto a patio chair, kicking their feet up and sipping on an ice-cold glass of lemonade on a hot summer day? Odds are, you probably focus the majority of your attention on the lemonade. But when’s the last time you considered the comfy cushion on that patio chair? Where exactly does it come from? How is it made?

The colors and designs on the cushions of your favorite patio furniture – and so many other products – are still screen printed. The majority of these fabrics are laboriously printed overseas, cut, sewn into cushions and shipped to the U.S. Often times, up to seven months pass from the time a retailer places an order until the product arrives on its shelves. Digital fabric printers have existed since the early 1990s, but they’ve never been fast enough to meet the demands of mass production. And, even then, implementing digital printing into cut and sew manufacturing would require a complete overhaul of the process currently being used around the world.

Three employees gather and review screen printed fabric at the LaRio Textile Manufacturing Lab

For years, a team of experts at the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University has been collaborating with print and color science professionals to not only advance the technology but develop a process map to effectively integrate digital printing with cut and sew once and for all. Last year, NC State’s work to advance textile production received a boost with a grant from the U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund, which helped complete a 2,600-square-foot, on-campus, digital print, cut and sew facility.

“So much trial and error has gone into testing new technology and optimizing a process that has the potential to transform the textile manufacturing industry,” said Dr. Lisa Chapman, who specializes in digital technology research at NC State. “Every detail – from speed of printing, to the development of pigments for industrial use – has been carefully examined.

“We’re running successful print trials right now,” she said. “That’s very exciting news for U.S. manufacturing because, all of a sudden, it has a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The speed is finally there. This process is going to allow domestic textile manufacturers to not only print digitally, but print on demand rather than waiting seven months for an order to process and ship.”

Large, industrial fabric printers are pictured at the LaRio Textile Manufacturing Lab

What does “print on demand” mean? It means the days of eating up valuable space in warehouses with backlogs of large patio furniture are almost behind us. It means retailers and manufacturers will be able to adapt quicker to evolving trends – and that the cost of a 10- to 20-color fabric will cost no more than a single-color fabric. Fabrics will now be printed to specific size specifications, minimizing waste and driving energy, cost and other efficiencies.

The team at NC State continues to work closely with industry partners, such as Expand Systems, to integrate digital printing with cut and sew operations to bring new products to market. Some of these products could arrive in stores – including Walmart – as early as next spring. NC State feels confident this technology and process could be adapted to meet the needs of other product categories, such as bedding. It's a win for U.S. manufacturing with the potential for even bigger and better things ahead.

Editor’s Note: In January 2014, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, announced the creation of a $10 million U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund to award those who create new processes, ideas and jobs that support America’s growing manufacturing footprint. To date, $4 million in grants has been awarded to seven leading research and development institutions, including NC State, to help solve manufacturing challenges related to small motor assembly, plastic injection molding and advanced textiles. The second grant cycle was announced last week at Walmart’s U.S. Manufacturing Summit, and you can learn more here.