Flatbed Operations Expand Opportunities For Rebirth
Rodney Sigmon, specialist for research and development and prototyping at the Manufacturing Solutions Center, checks specifications for a sample produced on Stoll one-dimensional knitting machine.
Twenty-first century knitting operations are leading a revolution in textiles manufacturing, comparable to the impact of the internet on worldwide communications.
A preview of the next generation in knitting can be seen in the Manufacturing Solutions Center at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory. Manufacturers of the flatbed knitting tout the production of “whole garment” or “technical” textiles.
Rodney Sigmon, who spearheads research and development and prototyping, refers to the new process as “three-dimensional knitting” or “knit to wear.” Complete apparel – dresses, sportswear, gloves, and socks – come off the equipment. But so does more technical components like backs for chairs, upholstery fabrics, and construction accessories. The equipment has the capacity to knit wire spacer fabrics and laid-in wire and cables for heating elements.
“The implications for these machines are huge,” says Dan St. Louis, director of the center. He says the new knitting technology is a good fit for companies and entrepreneurs in a region where traditional manufacturing is re-inventing its operations and markets.
Since 1990, HTC has guided the transition of the hosiery industry from mechanical to computerized production. When the Hosiery Technology Center was established, there were over 200 mills with 30,000 people shipping over 50 percent of the nation’s legwear – socks, tights, pantyhose. The globalization of the marketplace resulted in the sourcing of products offshore and the closing of mills and mass layoffs.
In the meantime, furniture manufacturing was experiencing the same pressures.
Today the Manufacturing Solutions Center has expanded to help hosiery, yarn, furniture and other emerging companies create new products for the 21st century marketplace. The center is recognized worldwide for its superior hosiery testing services and its assistance for prototyping new products. The center also focused on helping hosiery and furniture manufacturers pursue international markets.
Prototyping is poised to take a giant leap with the flatbed knitting machines from Stoll of Germany and Shima Seiki of Japan. Socks with knitted individual toes could be added to the offerings from hosiery companies. Performance-driven gloves and caps are potentials for traditional glove businesses.
Remember the green Nike shoes worn by U.S. athletes in the recent summer Olympics? Sigmon notes they were made on flatbed machines.
The capabilities and speed of production is determined by the size of the needle bed. The Shimi Seiki bed extends 36 inches and is adept at creating new socks with multiple patterns and colors and other small-size apparel. The Stoll has a bed that extends up to 72 inches with capacity for almost unlimited products for fashion, performance garments, upholstery, military products and numerous technical fabric uses.
The computerized equipment functions with programs that can be created by designers or pulled from files. For designers the opportunities are almost endless: yarn and colors can be scanned and programmed to create a realistic visual before the equipment is put into production. For any type of function or fashion, designers can literally push the creative envelope.
St. Louis says the Stoll and Shimi Seiki equipment was installed in the MSC through a partnership that the MSC staff will help entrepreneurs and existing businesses design and make prototypes of new products with this technology in order to generate more sales of this technology. MSC staff can also help getting these products to market both from internal resources and by using the network of close partners to bring such services as marketing materials, web sites, sourcing of raw materials, prototyping, distribution of products, retail connections, exporting etc. New business start-ups or increasing existing business orders creates jobs which is why MSC was created in the first place.
Sigmon and Rick Small have both been involved in extensive training sessions by both Shima and Stoll technicians both at their facilities and at MSC. There is a lot to learn but they are getting better with every day they work on this technology. Sigmon and Small will also be available to train new technicians on this technology so it can be incorporated into existing or new companies.
In fact, prototyping can be a business in itself and St. Louis sees entrepreneurs acquiring machines to tap into this market. When the MSC moves into new facilities next month in Conover, the flatbed operations are expected to draw even more attention and activity.
The move also will result in expanded testing facilities which have fueled the growth of the MSC over the past decade. Hundreds of hosiery buyers and marketing executives from leading U.S. retailers and brand companies have been introduced to the MSC through its Hosiery 101 and Hosiery 102 courses. Most of the retailers have designated the MSC for hosiery testing. In 2011, a North Carolina hosiery company received a multi-million order to produce special socks for the Indian military after they were tested for required standards.
Since it was established 22 years ago through the efforts of area manufacturers, the center has received bipartisan support from the North Carolina General Assembly. As the needs of the industry evolved – from the integration of immigrants into the work force and the arrival of computerized technology – the MSC has been a resource that helped the hosiery industry survive.
High-quality performance products will drive manufacturing of the future, St. Louis insists. This means more emphasis on prototyping and outreach to specialty markets.
With access to the extensive opportunities offered by the flatbed program, North Carolina mills can be poised to rebuild manufacturing in America.
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