For what is thought to be the first time in Europe, a company is making true made-to-measure by linking 3D body scanning direct to automatic pattern making, automatic marker making, and automatic cutting.

The British Royal Navy allows just two minutes to measure each recruit for a new uniform, and averages between 150 and 200 recruits in each intake.

Manufacturer Hobson and Sons took up the challenge to kit out all new officer cadets passing through HMS Britannia, the Dartmouth naval training base, with three sets of uniforms apiece - basic tailored, blue Barathea and mess. All are made-to-measure and, with the next intake of cadets, at least 95 per cent are likely to be produced automatically, from measurement through to cut pieces ready to be made up by small teams within the factory.

The officer cadet, male or female, steps into the mobile Telmat scanning unit and is scanned at the training centre in Dartmouth. The body measurement data is then sent via modem directly and automatically to the Gerber MTM (made-to-measure) system situated within the factory in Essex. Here, pattern pieces are adapted to the size of the cadet, and markers automatically produced and sent to the single ply Gerber cutter. The only human interventions are those manually introduced to verify the information and to check that the data files are secure and intact.

Three intakes of cadets have so far been measured in this way. The results coming out are now within an accuracy of +/-1 per cent, although a steep learning curve was necessary for both Hobson and Telmat.

Variations in body shape
Cadets starting at the college come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are recruited from universities where the daily regime is very different to the highly physical one undertaken during the first few weeks at Dartmouth.

The combination of exercise and survival training means that the cadet's body shapes and weights change considerably within a short period of time - up to a stone and a half has been lost in some cases, whilst others have put on a stone. So finding the best time to carry out the measurements has proved an interesting experience.

Measuring women has an added problem in that not only does their bust include cup as well as circumference size and shape, but these change during the monthly cycle - as do other parts of their bodies.

The type of underwear that is worn has also proved an important factor. Women, for example, need to put on the style of bra they would wear under the uniforms for which they are being fitted, though it should not be too lacy and must be a neutral colour for the scan to be effective. Breathing also affects the body shape, and to counteract this all cadets are asked to breath out when the scan is taken.

Measurement data
Extracting the measurement data and inputting it into the MTM system has also been an interesting exercise. The process has been developed jointly by Telmat and Gerber Technology.

The Navy's mess and ceremonial uniforms have to be far more exact than most high street made-to-measure. The arm length, for example, has to come to a precise point on the hand; and the leg length must meet a specific part of the shoe.

To develop the programs, each cadet was measured conventionally by a trained Hobson tailor and then by the scanner. Only where the measurements directly correlated were the body-scanned measurements automatically processed. Otherwise the details were manually entered into the Gerber system.

The measurements from the first intake were used as a means of providing data to see where changes and developments to the systems were needed. As Colin Lane, managing director of Hobson and Sons and the project leader explains: "The learning curve was also an internal one. To start with, we were looking at what we did and how the system could be made to do it our way, rather than looking to see what the system did and how we could get it to deliver what we wanted. It was a mindset that took us maybe four or five months to change. This was our biggest stumbling block.

"We saw the concept being exhibited at Clotech (the UK's triennial clothing machinery and technology exhibition) back in March 1999 and began the project during the latter part of last year. We saw it as a long-term project providing the ability to cope with a particular area of our market more competitively and cost-effectively, and have therefore been prepared to invest well into six figures.

"Telmat seemed to be the best system for our needs, the time element for scanning being the key. As existing Gerber customers used to using the Accumark system, it seemed logical to use the Gerber MTM and Gerber Cutting Edge single ply cutter, though we will be upgrading to a higher capacity cutter in the near future."

Tailor-made alterations
Hobsons used to provide the cadets with customised stock size uniforms. In other words, a set of standard sizes was used and then arms lengthened, legs shortened as necessary. To enable this customisation, tailors were used to measure each cadet.

The company therefore needed a team of highly skilled staff, but could see that the continuing reduction of traditional skills within the UK clothing industry was likely to lead to recruitment problems in the future. By automating the process, the need for much of this skill is considerably reduced. A further benefit has been a 25-30 per cent reduction in cutting costs, together with the production of much better fitting garments.

This project to provide a 'custom clothing service' is part of the DTI supported Foresight Link Programme. It has also been instrumental in setting up the Centre for 3D Electronic Commerce to pioneer the use of 3D human body metrics in sizing, manufacturing and retail.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology, and quick response.