A conference organised last week by the EU's Leapfrog project on apparel manufacturing technologies provided a progress report on research into areas such as 3D virtual prototyping and automated garment assembly. Jozef De Coster reports from Brussels.

At the end of last week's third annual Leapfrog Conference in Brussels, professor Paul Kiekens of Ghent University seemed relieved.

The reason, he explained, is that: "The European 'Leapfrog' project aimed at achieving a technology breakthrough in clothing manufacturing is definitely much stronger and more focused than a few years ago."

But while he noted that the technologies needed for a dramatic improvement of the industry's productivity and competitiveness will soon be available, he also cautioned: "Leapfrog is involved in an exciting race against time.

"Either the Leapfrog initiative will succeed in rapidly decreasing the clothing sector's dependence on the labour cost factor, or this industry will permanently lose its production and knowledge base in Europe."

Mauro Scalia, of Euratex, explained that although Leapfrog began setting up its Europe-wide expert network in 2001, the research and development results of this EU-sponsored project (with a budget of EUR42m) have only be implemented since May 2005.

By April 2009, Leapfrog will come to an end. By then, the European clothing sector should be able to achieve a step change in productivity and international competitiveness.

Optimistic outlook
Several speakers at the Leapfrog Conference gave reason for optimism.

Ulla Schütte, of the German bureau for modern sewing technology Philipp Moll, discussed the results of its new 3D-sewing robot called Robosew. A striking characteristic of Robosew is that during the sewing process it is the sewing machine that moves, and not the fabric.

According to Ulla Schütte, more than 80% of the working time in a garment factory is taken up by handling and transportation rather than sewing. In contrast, Robosew sews all the time, at an average speed of 5 metres per minute.

This means that sewing headrests for VW cars, for example, Robosew only takes 16 seconds per piece, against 2 minutes traditionally. Also, Robosew is said to deliver perfect quality.

But there's a big difference between sewing a mass-produced product like headrests (of which VW alone needs 40,000 pieces a day) and sewing small runs of clothing. Büro Moll has just developed the first prototype of a flexible mould on which clothing articles can be sewn.

"We hope to be successful," says Ulla Schütte, who regrets that, especially in Germany, the drive towards automation in the sewing industry - in the clothing sector as well as the car sector - vanished during the nineties when Eastern Europe offered very cheap CMT opportunities.

Dirk Hänsch, of the German company Prolas, praised an alternative joining method: laser welding. Prolas has developed a laser head for welding textiles, especially for protective clothing.

According to Hänsch, laser welding is not only superior in terms of quality, safety and energy consumption, it's also cheap as it reduces labour cost by at least 50%.

3D virtual prototyping
Alessandro Canepa, of the Italian company Piacenza (cashmere fabrics), demonstrated the impact that 3D virtual prototyping has on reducing the number of physical samples.

"The major problem is that fabric and garment design is still viewed as an artistic process," said Canepa. Of the 65,000 fabric samples Piacenza has to prepare annually, only around 500 (0.77%) make it to the consumer.

But if two conditions were fulfilled - the cultural acceptance by textile and garment designers of CAD and 3D virtual prototyping technologies and the integration of these technologies - tremendous progress could be made in terms of much shorter time to market, much reduced sample costs and more freedom in style development.

Eric Bourdon of the French Institute for Textile and Clothing (IFTH) added that new textile and clothing CAD-technology, including virtual prototyping, has been developed in the context of Leapfrog.

This is expected to deliver the following results: a reduction in prototyping time from the current seven weeks to less than one week, a 60% reduction of the number of prototypes that need to be physically submitted a 30% reduction in development costs, and better targeting of samples to consumer and market behaviour.

Technology alone won't save the European clothing industry. Pierro de Sabbata of ENEA (the Italian National Agency for New Technology, Energy and the Environment), insisted that knowledge sharing along the supply chain must be improved.

The challenge, he says, is to build a collaborative framework across the sector (extended Smart Garment Organisation) to transform the European garment industry into a flexible, hi-tech, adaptive and efficient manufacturing system.

Textile support
For its part, the European textile industry is willing to support the efforts of the garment industry via the EUR3.42m Innotex project.

Innotex aims to develop a productivity enhancement toolbox for the textile industry, covering four key textile processes: polymer extrusion/yarn manufacturing, dyeing, finishing and technical fabrics manufacturing.

Process improvements will lead to both productivity gains and increased quality of the final textile products. During the first 6 years of its operation, Innotex will reach about 1,600 European textile SMEs.

The Belgian textile professor Paul Kiekens believes in the ultimate success of Leapfrog. But he warns: "The major problem may be that the industry is too slow to use the new technologies. Many companies still seem to be more eager to outsource production to Asia than to adopt new technologies."

By Jozef De Coster.

Leapfrog is a joint research and innovation initiative undertaken by the European textile and clothing industry. Led by Euratex, it brings together European textile and clothing companies and research centres in an attempt to find ways of improving the productivity and competitiveness of Europe's clothing sector.