Source: Multi-Plot Europe

Disruption with digital printing

Experts are in agreement: digitalisation will turn the analogue industry upside down. The textile and fashion industry also needs to confront the digital transformation, as digital printing expert Joachim Rees warns.

Mr Rees, in general terms: is Germany ignoring digitalisation at the moment?

When new products are introduced on the German market, there’s an unwritten law that goes something like this: “If you can sell it in Germany, you can sell it anywhere.” We are renowned for our strict rules and regulations, which don’t make it exactly easy for new products and procedures. This combination of a desire for preservation and a critical attitude to new things means that a radically disruptive process, such as digitalisation, can be slowed down, but it cannot, of course, be stopped.

Joachim Rees, Managing Director Multi-Plot Europe GmbH / Source: Multi-Plot Europe GmbH

Joachim Rees, Managing Director Multi-Plot Europe GmbH / Source: Multi-Plot Europe GmbH

You are the managing director of Multi-Plot Europe GmbH, solution providers for digital textile printing systems. How would you explain digital printing on the children’s ‘Show with the Mouse (Sendung mit der Maus)?

In a Queen song, Freddie Mercury sings “I want it all and I want it now …” – which describes it very well. I can design many things myself with digital printing. I can print textile products and surfaces straightaway with all different colours, patterns and writing, be they T-shirts, advertising banners or curtains.

You formulated the sentence: “Digital printing is a growth market – it serves the global trend towards individualisation.” How do these two concepts go together?

Individualisation has taken hold now in all sectors of life, including the textile and fashion industry. Customers are increasingly following their own needs and ideas when choosing their clothing. This means that criteria such as individuality, quality, origin and sustainability are becoming more and more important. The ‘standard customers’ who are supplied with up to 24 collections a year –the buzzword is ‘(Ultra) Fast Fashion’ – are joined by more and more critical consumers who prefer old favourites to (throwaway) fast fashion. This is where digital printing comes into play: it can meet customers’ changed expectations, because it enables personalised clothing to be produced in small quantities in a cost-effective and sustainable way. With digital printing, there is no overproduction and there are also no costs for logistics and warehousing.

Sceptics say that most consumers have no inclination to design their t-shirts, jackets and shoes themselves. Is the desire for individualised clothing strong enough to generate significant turnover?

Individualised clothing does not mean that everyone will be designing the contents of their wardrobe all by themselves. In addition to cost-effective manufacture of individual pieces, digitalisation facilitates the production of smaller quantities and collections which can still be designed by professionals. The results of a Civey survey on sustainable fashion are very interesting in this respect: in 2018, the market research company asked more than 44,000 people how satisfied they were with the range of ecological fashion in their vicinity and whether they would be prepared to spend more money on these kinds of products. In addition to the fact that three out of ten participants had bought sustainable clothing in the previous year, the findings on why others didn’t do this were particularly fascinating: when asked what most put them off buying ecological clothing, 24 percent of respondents mentioned “excessive prices” and around 22 percent said that there was “too little on offer in the surrounding area”. Price and availability – two important features of individualised textile and fashion production, because it enables even small quantities to be produced cost-efficiently ‘around the corner’ from the customer.

T-Shirt manufacturing 'on demand': Amazon also wants to get involved in the individualised clothing manufacture of the future: in 2017 the shipping giant secured a patent for manufacturing clothing items, such as t-shirts, which are to be produced automatically after being ordered online / Source: photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

T-Shirt manufacturing ‘on demand’: Amazon also wants to get involved in the individualised clothing manufacture of the future: in 2017 the shipping giant secured a patent for manufacturing clothing items, such as t-shirts, which are to be produced automatically after being ordered online / Source: photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

In the spring of 2020, the sports goods manufacturer Adidas wants to close its ‘Speedfactory’ shoe manufacturing plants in Atlanta, USA and in Ansbach, Franconia. Parts of the technology are to be transferred to Asia, in other words, to that part of the world which still represents cost-effective mass production, large batch sizes and long transport routes. They describe microfactories as ‘the factories of the future’ for small margins and personalised clothing. Has Adidas made a misjudgement? Or are dream and reality still too far apart from each other when it comes to one-off and small batch production? – the buzzword is “Fashion on demand”

I don’t know the thought processes that are going on at Adidas, but I don’t think that the company has abandoned the focus on individualised manufacturing. It’s quite possible that they are closing the microfactories simply because they work. The technology seems to have proved effective, if they want to continue using it. It is said that the Speedfactory in Ansbach was designed to produce 500,000 pairs of shoes a year; and even this capacity limit was never reached. Adidas produces a total of 400 million shoes a year worldwide, so it can be assumed that, from the beginning, the speedfactories were also about testing the technology for local, highly automated production of smaller quantities. And who knows, perhaps they’ll export the model of a flexible small factory in future to other countries for a limited period, for example for the European and World Cup championships.

In another interview you said that the “very conservative” textile sector needs to confront the changes brought about by the digitalisation of processes and changing consumer behaviour. What has been missed when setting the agenda for the implementation of digitalisation?

It seems that many companies still haven’t understood that digitalisation is a process of transformation which will radically transform nearly all analogue processes. The question is not whether, but when, this will happen. In many textile companies, the finished goods are still the only product. This is understandable because employees’ salaries are generated by sales. But we also need to be open to new playing fields. Customer data, for example, have also been an important product for a long time, and this has not played a part in many textile considerations up till now. Or take the design and know-how of a new collection: both of these are already in Asia today before a single piece has been sold. These are the rules of the old value chain. But how mad is that? Designs provide a real competitive edge! Just like the customer data which provides an interface with the consumers. By using the data, companies can obtain information about customers’ preferences, requirements and purchasing behaviour, and they can also create unique user experiences.

Can you give me some examples?

We advise a lot of young German companies who produce fashion items, sports apparel and home textiles locally in quantities of a hundred or a thousand. The fabrics are the only thing they still buy from textile manufacturers; the rest is done by microfactories. With these companies, the production hall is no longer called a ‘textile factory’. That being said, a number of our customers actually tried at first to get their products made by traditional textile firms, but the batch sizes were either too small or the risk too great for them to try something new. For this reason, more and more newcomers are bypassing the traditional textile producers, retailers and – for example, with home textiles – the traditional interior decorators. Instead they’re approaching the end customer directly via e-shops and apps; they’re delivering digital content and stories about their products and running efficient data management, and so on. Non-textile manufacturers seem to be making more modern textile and fashion products than the traditional textile manufacturers. It’s clearly an advantage to come from outside the sector: I’m a graduate engineer in electrical engineering and I don’t know all the phrases like “That’s not possible” and “That will never work” of the textiles world – and what you don’t know, can’t slow you down.

In your opinion, how do sector trade fairs like Texprocess need to prepare for the new challenges?

At textiles fairs, there is still too strong a focus on individual solutions in the sphere of digitalisation. To put it graphically: you can see lots of individual musical instruments in the trade fair halls, but as a group, they don’t yet make a great-sounding orchestra. I would like the fibres in the changing tide of digitalisation to be shown more clearly, and answers to be given to questions like: how can I digitalise the textile value chain in a useful, efficient and sustainable way? How can I establish long-lasting interfaces with customers? How do I retain customers? Microfactories are a good approach, but it needs to be shown much more clearly how textile processes can be networked overall, from the original fibre through to individuals’ freedom to design their own favourite pieces.

Mr Rees, many thanks for the interview.


Cover image source: Multi-Plot Europe GmbH

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