Fabdesigns, Inc.

What are the most expensive words in R&D?

What Does It mean To Knitting?

 Companies spend and lot of time, money and effort choosing the right candidates to hire.  Today’s buzz word is innovation. Along with Moore’s rule, computers, and the machine parts they govern, have grown quicker, smaller, and more precise, driving up product innovations, and the cost to make those products, down. Yet, there are some people in key positions who are not just overly cautious about progress, but they down right squelch the innovation they seek by shortsightedness.

The most expensive words in product development are, “We have always done it that way.”

To anyone who has left a good job to join a prominent organization, and then heard these words, it is like having a hole put in your boat before one even starts.

Today’s commercial markets are so rapidly changing that no sooner has merchandise hit the floor that consumers expect a discount. This leaves companies doing one of three things. 

The pasta approach – literally throwing every idea against the wall as fast as possible, to see what works.

The choke hold – putting each idea through overly vigorous analysis, that by the time the project is actually defined, the product is no longer relevant.

Or, they may find themselves frequently changing managers and teams.

Sometimes companies can also confuse necessary change, with changing things for just the sake of change. Everything in life seems to boil down to timing and chemistry. So, just because something didn’t work 5 years ago, doesn’t mean that it won’t work now.

Changing to create positives is always a good thing:

·         Improve culture and attitude

·         Create ownership of projects and accountability

·         Improve proactive communication, internally and from consumer

·         Drive cost savings

·         Create new solutions, and increasing IP

·         And, of course growing the business

So, what is the right amount of normalcy for product development? It truly depends on the opportunity and the problem the company is trying to solve.  Another good question is: How much development can your company support? And, everyone due diligence must ask: what are the prospects if you do minimal to nothing?  Knowing the answers to these questions, helps a company understand where it is, and develop a strategy for getting where it wants to go.

The first thing a company needs to do is take a snap shot of itself, define its existing product development process, making note of each step and procedure.

Then it needs to measure what those steps and processes cost in time, resources, and people power.

Third, it needs to objectively analyze cost & time, and what it gets as a return on its investment.  The company also needs to look at how many of these projects are game changers, building IP, customer requests, and blue sky.

The company needs to evaluate this collected information, knowing that the world is changing and all the data it just collected in this snap shot is perishable. So, it’s important to have a reasonable timeline to complete this type of analysis.  If it’s for the first time, it needs to be organized but prompt, and not take a whole year doing, it.  But, make the effort the first time to find the right collection points, and then keep monitoring the data routinely, every quarter. This makes mistakes easy to adjust and improve the following quarter.

What data am I talking about analyzing?

How many products does the product development process it has in place launch, versus how many projects it investigates and greenlights?  The total products launched divided by the cost of ALL developments is the ratio.  I once had a General manager at one the top companies in the world tell me that for R&D a great ratio should be around 65% for consumer products.  Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have done the other 35%, especially if we learned from the R&D processes.  We also may have tabled projects waiting for technology to catch up with what we wanted to manufacture.

Then the company needs to create goals to improve product development processes. Each process affects speed to market, budgets, portfolio, and bottom line (EBITDA).

If this sounds familiar, it is.  It is the key principle of a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects (driving toward six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit) in any process – from manufacturing to transactional and from product to service. 

(if you would like to read more about Six Sigma: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Sigma)

At Fabdesigns, we have used these principles of lean manufacturing for several decades. We put together a typical Critical Path for Product Development for our clients in each SOW (statement of Work), with an inclusive process, and measures of success for developing robust innovative products.  Most companies which come to us to develop a 3D knitted prototype, really underestimate what they are asking.  They might think they just need one piece, a proof of concept, but what goes into making a technical product, doesn’t start with just making a sample, then launching into production. 

In fashion development must be fast to get the product to market before the lifecycle of the trend is over. In technical, speed to market might be fast, but the product remains in the product line for likely several years or more. More care must be put into the development on the front end regarding not only choosing suitable materials, but also production engineering and testing. The real project is building an entire platform, not just a product. The questions governing such a long product life cycle are: Is this repeatable and scalable? What is the value of using the raw materials that are in the sample?  Are we using efficiencies of manufacturing? How can I improve this after launch?

The main reason this disconnect between what designers or engineers ask for today, is that in today’s world manufacturing is very different than it was just a few decades ago.  Manufacturing is typically not in the same building as design, operations, sales, or shipping.  They can be miles, states, or countries away from each other.  Yet, all these parts need to work together in making a successful product.

How does this pertain to our industry- technical textiles?

Making technical textiles is a very complex process, that in 3D knits, does not start with the knitting process.  Like any robust product development, it takes every part of your company to provide input, business acumen, engineering know-how, materials science, production planning, operations, sourcing know how, sales, as well as a whole host of other unique and relevant skills sets that Fabdesigns’ team brings to the table.  (If you would like to read more about the most common problem in developing 3 dimensional technical textiles: Technical Prototypes)

We are building the product at the same time we are building the fabric for you as well as supply chain, B.O.M and best practices for that product.  Everything is interconnected.  We are not buying off the shelf fabric to cut and sew where someone else has already done half the work in building fabric.  Therefore, we must develop from the lowest building blocks of fabric to control the whole fabric. For each product, even for the same company, this recipe of polymer, yarn, structures, and dimensions can be different. Creating three dimensional products is akin to putting the principles of knitting – knit, tuck, miss, transfer – through an Enigma machine for each project. “We have always done it that way,” could not be further from the reality of the knitting industry.

To understand 3-dimensional knitting, we need a little background in computerized knitting technology first. This is as brief a synopsis as I can make in a couple hundred words that won't make your eyes glaze over as you skip through.

The main technology change that made knit to shape, 2D, multi textures, and features like pockets, buttonholes, V necks, belt loops, and integrated lapels, was the belt driven Stoll CMS 400, which debuted in 1987 Paris. 

Photo Below 

Bruce Huffa - Itma 1987 Paris at debut of CMS 400

Flat knitting machines previously, were either mechanical fully-fashioned frames with huge belts, or stand-alone flat knitting machines that had a physical binary system that required pegs in or out or in certain places to adjust timing, tensions, and stitch selection.

Photo below 

Stoll Ajum with past card selection system

In the late 70’s electronics and basic computers started to transform all industries.  For knitting it amounted to a revolution, where no longer did factories need to stick with small jacquards because of the limitations of the mechanical machines and the resources of the production team. The first generations of electronic knitting machines had no memory on the machines, just ROM and no RAM.  There were plastic tapes that had to run on the machine constantly, because there was no memory, and the machines relied heavily on the technician knowing where things were.

Photo below

Stoll CNCA-3BM at Fabdesigns in 1994

The belt drive, the addition of RAM, and several computers to the machines revolutionized the knitting industry and allowed the machine carriages to move precisely only where they needed to be and ‘think’ while knitting.  3 dimensions may not have worked well at all on previous generations of machinery. But these new machines with belt drives and sinkers were not your Dad’s knitting mechanical machinery.  The time had come, and the knitting world let loose with many products that took advantage of knitting only where the carriage needed to be.  One of the first and most notable was COOGI from Australia.  The company is an icon of knitting in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with loud multi-colored and multi textured, dimensional fabrics.  No two looked the same. 

(To read more about the history of Coogi sweaters visit: http://www.highsnobiety.com/2014/11/20/coogi-history/)

Examples below

The multi textures were easily made by short rowing, creating curves, tubes, tunnels, eyebrows, bunching, zig zags and other textures.  Each panel could have over a dozen jacquards, and another dozen textures, expressed in as many feeder colors as would fit on the machine. This was so not possible on previous generations of machines. Doing things 'the way they were always done' without CAD, was not an option. Companies who did not embrace the new belt driven technology were rendered technologically and economically uncompetitive in better markets.

In Medical products heels, elbows, knees, and other complex bends in fabrics that allowed fabrics to take an anatomically correct shape, and not lay flat on the table were then achievable. Other features like pockets, button holes, pocket flaps, and other items that were always sewn on, could be made consistently in the same place, with no human error, no sewer’s fatigue, and no difference in skill. They could be cut and pasted virtually in the CAD system and multiplied anywhere on the garment.  This was also not possible on previous versions of CAD.

Still, many companies around the world used these machines for cut and sew, rather than full fashioning, due to time required to get the shape correct. This was not worth the time for small orders, and quick turns, resulting from other economic and political decisions that changed the market landscape in the West. For lower end yarns, it was and is easier to program rectangles and cut them, as well as it being less expensive to just waste the pieces cut out, than knit to shape. 

In Australia, Europe, and South America, where more expensive yarns were used, these machines made fully fashioned apparel, which their markets already preferred, much more affordable to manufacture. As the machines electronics got smaller, faster, and more cost effective, making the whole garment off the machine seemed possible technically. Though making garments completely finished by the machine with no cutting or sewing has not been adopted as an industry standard for product viability reasons.

Examples below:

Intarsia Collars made on the CMS, were not possible on the mechanical machines. Simple solid color collars went from 2.5 minutes each on Dubied JDR and Ajum to 1 minute per collar on 400 and 2 per minute on the CMS 402.

Whole Garment and Knit and Wear was actively marketed in the mid 90’s, first by Shima. (If you would like to read more about Shima: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_garment_knitting)

These garments are viewed as a manufacturing process focusing on completely finished apparel off the machines. Manufacturing then had options: cut and sew, 2D or 3D completely finished.  However, the expertise and extended time required to program 2D and 3D, versus the perceived value from the consumers for the prices the technology needed, has been a mismatch for most markets. Except for luxury fashion and medical industry, which use more costly materials.  Anyone who stayed with chain drive machines saw their business dwindle. Companies that adapted technology survived that round of trade agreements.

Machines have gotten faster and easier to handle. Electronics have gotten better. Also, the threshold for making 2D, 3D and beyond, in a profitable manner, has dropped from the luxury market, to designer and specialty brands. “We have always done it that way,” is not an attitude option in today’s fast changing market, focusing more on sustainability and serving more activist consumers who want products to tell a story as well as being the best value for their money. Looking always to the past, whether success or failure, could cost your company its future. Throwing good people and budgets at old problems, without giving them full knowledge of where they are and the right tools, while expecting game changing results is not only frustrating to your team, it is an expensive waste of resources, and time. You are putting hamsters on wheels with no way to get out, except burn out. Getting your arms around product development, analyzing your ROI, and reviewing development that may have been passed over in previous years with new eyes, maybe worth revisiting. Knitting to shape, which is something many companies have passed over thinking it was too expensive or complicated, may be able to solve many issues facing today's manufacturing, from waste and sustainability, to quality and lean manufacturing. Machines have changed; computers are faster; todays work force are more digitally plugged in, and consumers are demanding lower carbon footprints of the products they purchase.

So, if this science of technical product development is something you would like to learn more, contact us.

Connie Huffa – Fabdesigns, Inc.

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Newsletter for manufacturing technical textiles & 3D flat knitting
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