STA attendees fall in for joint division meeting

Posted November 11, 2021


By Devin Steele


BELMONT, N.C. – During these unpredictable times, the Southern Textile Association (STA) combined its Northern and Southern Division Fall Meetings into one this year, and pulled off a successful half-day event at the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College’s Kimbrell Campus here last month.


In making early announcements, Charles Poston of Kluber Lubrication and second vice president of the STA, asked attendees to remember Preston Aldridge, a longtime STA member who was on its Board of Governors who died suddenly weeks before the meeting with a moment of silence.


The meeting featured four segments, including company spotlights that allowed individual attendees who pre-registered to offer brief insights into their firms.


Among speakers was Keith Hoover, president, Black Swan Textiles LLC, who presented "Real Solutions, Promising Developments, Science Projects, And Hogwash: A Textile and Apparel Digitalization Overview." From design to color to fabric to garment assembly, Hoover gave the audience a poignant glimpse of where the industry is headed and the players that are making it happen by sharing his perspective on promises vs. realities.


Hoover has gained a wealth of experience at several major brands and retailers, and is a subject matter expert in numerous disciplines within the sector, particularly around color, fabric development and manufacturing innovation. He has devised digital color management programs for several of the companies with whom he has worked.


He launched Black Swan Textiles four years ago and, with partners Ed Hollyday and Frank Henderson (Henderson Sewing Machine Co.), is currently building a “Fabric Digital Twin model to simplify fabric development and replication, allowing fabrics to be searched, selected and matched by the numbers, just like color.”

The future starts with digitization, of course, he said, and he went through each of the aforementioned segments – design, color, fabric, garment assembly – with examples of “real solutions, promising developments, science projects and hogwash.”


“When we talk about digitization, it’s basically digital twins. It’s converting a garment in this case to a 3D object and then breaking it down into its 2D parts,” he said. “And now we’re starting to look at a digital twin in a factory.”


So, for example, before a sewing line is set up, we can look at different machines and setups, evaluate labor, their efficiency and overall throughput so the sewing line can be optimized before moving a single piece of equipment around, he said.


As far as assembly – whether it’s automation, robotics or Lean Manufacturing – it can be modeled and optimized, Hoover said. And since everything is digitized, real-time data can be collected, be it in a spinning plant, a knitting plant, a dyeing and finishing operation or a garment factory, he added.


“A digital twin is just a simulation, a model of what we’re doing and how we manufacture,” Hoover said. “So it’s a tool, it’s not an end in itself. It’s a way to optimize it to make a better product. And we want to get data out of that so we can make it more efficient.”


Manufacturers understand that their job is to “make stuff” – not about “talking about making stuff,” he said.


“And there is a lot of talk about making stuff in the industry, and it’s mostly at the apparel brands,” he said. “So they see these cool 3D images that they build, and they say, ‘wow, this is great, if we just send it to the factory, they can make it.’ Well, no, it doesn’t work that way. The way a lot of this software is marketed, it’s like Star Wars – there’s all this Hollywood stuff, special effects, computer design – and they sell this software to the brands thinking that they’re going to be out there doing cool stuff. The brands get the software and for awhile they have the special sauce and that they’re really cool and, before they know it, the special sauce goes away and they’re just a fat kid with a stick.”


This scenario has been playing out about two decades, Hoover said, without much adoption. “But that’s starting to change, especially with COVID hitting. These investments in technology, they’re going to have to start seeing some returns on their investment.”


He then delved into examples of the some of the developments available today, and he offered his assessment of whether they are promising, hokum or somewhere in between.


During his in-depth presentation, he noted that to be successful, we’ll need to move from a merch-driven process to a design-driven process – where informed product design and validation will be critical – and the digital twin model will be key, he said.


“The whole purpose of designing a garment is to make something that you sell and people wear,” he said.


A big takeaway: Hoover advised that Black Swan is working to digitize fabric by scanning an image of a fabric and, through Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, can determine such attributes as type of stiches, sequences, needle layout, yarn diameter, construction details, etc.


“When I was at Ralph Lauren, JCPenney, Under Armour or any of the others, we did a lot of fabric development, but our biggest challenge was moving a program from one region to the other,” he said. “If we wanted to get out of China into Central America, we had to redevelop every core fabric that we had because mills weren’t going to tell us how they made it. So we would go through 10 to 12 weeks of trying to replicate that fabric, and sometimes we were successful, sometimes we weren’t. So this technology basically eliminates that process.”


TTC's growth and organizational wellbeing


After an introduction by Sam Buff, vice president and general manager Manufacturing & Textile Innovation Network (MTIN), Jasmine Cox and Don Rusch provided an update on the expansion at and added services provided by the Textile Technology Center (TTC) at Gaston College. The MTIN is a partnership between the Textile Technology Center and the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) at Catawba Valley Community College in Conover, N.C. Serving companies in the U.S. and around the world, the centers provide solutions for manufacturing and textile processes and advancement.


Rusch gave a rundown of equipment that will be housed at the new Fiber Innovation Center (FIC) on the campus (ground was broken for the facility on October 27), and expanded services and capabilities the TTC will offer with the new center.


Cox offered information on the new Textile Academy at Gaston College, which recently launched. The purpose of the academy is focused directly on addressing the workforce skills gap specifically related to the textile industry. She also offered an overview of the TTC’s textile training and education programs, including apprenticeships, workforce development and its new textile technology degree program.


Meanwhile, Marti Smith, area senior vice president of Health and Welfare Consulting at Gallagher, and her colleague, David Holmes, area vice president, covered, "Organizational Wellbeing: Everything That Affects and Organization's Success." They provided insights into how to engage and retain the changing workforce. They noted that 49 percent of employees are refreshing their Employee Value Propositions (EVPs).


The top five tactics used to increase engagement, they said, are: 1) give timely and constructive feedback; 2) define clear performance goals; 3) communicate in a way that fosters trust and confidence; 4) provide performance-based recognition; and 5) support employees in developing and pursuing a career path.

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