Japan's apparel industry in hi-tech bid to secure future
TOKYOMar 21, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
Mar 21, 2016 12:00 am
From ready-to-wear knits manufactured instantly to customized dresses produced on inkjet printers, Japan's apparel industry is turning to state-of-the-art technology in a bold bid to cut labor costs and secure its future.
At manufacturing giant Shima Seiki's factory in western Japan, garments materialize in minutes, thanks to digitally-programmed automated machines that can turn out a sample seam-free pullover in half an hour with a push of a button.
The WholeGarment system patented by the Japanese manufacturer and sold to knitwear companies like Italian luxury brand Max Mara includes a digital design system that allows users to choose patterns, colors and cuts.
Originally known for glove-making machinery, Shima Seiki took a technological leap in the 1990s in an effort to revive the flagging fortunes of Japanese apparel manufacturers.
"Everyone was going overseas to cheaper destinations for manufacturing and we wanted to stop that from happening," said Kenji Iwamoto of Shima Seiki.
The WholeGarment system allows one worker to operate 10 machines - thereby lowering labor costs - and uses limited raw material to create seam-free garments that generate no waste, since they require no cutting or sewing.
After a slow start that saw around a dozen brands from Japan and Italy sign up the first year, today some 800 companies - nearly half of them Japanese - have jumped on board, contributing to Shima Seiki's 60 percent share of the global market for knitting machines. The initiative is part of a push by Japan's knitwear industry to capitalize on its technical know-how to create garments that cannot be replicated elsewhere at a lower cost.
The focus on technique and technology has already paid off, with Japan's knitwear sector registering a 40 percent increase in exports over a 10-year period beginning in 2006, a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture for textile and apparel exports from the country.
Recognizing the need for reinvention in the apparel sector, Japanese textile company Seiren, known more for manufacturing curtains and car interiors, is now fusing fashion and digital know-how to launch a customized clothing line for the masses.
The Viscotecs brand, available to customers at Tokyo's Takashimaya department stores since September, invites customers to try on a sample outfit in a dressing room specially fitted with a camera that downloads their image onto a hand-held device.
They can then choose from a dizzying array of options - including patterns, fabrics, colors and lengths - displayed on the tablet to create a one-of-a-kind dress.
The design data is digitally transmitted to Seiren's factory in central Japan where the garment is brought to life via pattern-cutting machines and inkjet printers before being delivered to the store in three weeks. However, buying into the brand comes at a cost, with dresses priced between 65,000 to 80,000 yen ($600 to $700).