There is a buzz word in the air today – Mass Customization. We have been hearing it frequently in the flat knitting industry as if it is something new. If you look online you will find papers from notable institutions and blurbs in textbooks. It can mean many things from:
· Fully fashioned flat knitting,
· sequential knitting,
· knitting the whole product with no cutting or sewing.
- sustainable manufacturing
- custom products
It can even mean customizing after processes. Standardizing the production process and building integrated components or products finished by the machines improves the flexibility of the supply network for a JIT system and generates minimal waste.
You may ask, is this profitable? And, why has no one done this before?
In fact, mass-customization in flat knitting has been around since the advent of computerized knitting machines in our industry. It is profitable if it is done correctly and no two companies fit the same mass-customization model.
Benneton for one has been manufacturing sweaters and dying them to order, according to sales.
In mass-customization, the goal is no dead stock to dump. You create products that people actually want and are suited to their tastes. They also tend to keep these longer as opposed to fast fashion.
In the case of Benneton, they are dying already made up sweaters. So, it is actually the dying process that is customized by postponing that process until the company knows what they need in color breakdown for sales rather than delay the entire production process.
The Bentley and Steiger fully fashioned frame factories of a hundred years ago in the UK, Reading PA, Blenheim New Jersey, also ran some post-production dye in this way.
If you would like to read more about this study on Benneton:
This is great for solid colors, or perhaps a cross-dye product. But, what about multicolored products that use yarn that is already dyed? Well, that has also been done in flat knitting since we could program on the Apple IIe back in the 1980s.
Original Apple IIe system brochure from 1986 (Right) Apple II gs; both from our studio
One such company that has been doing customized mass production, compiling orders in a cue, and running production for decades, is Randesign. Anyone can embroider customization into a product, but Gary made it part of the product itself. Gary Rand and his family-owned Ohio Knitting Mills way back when, which had a battery of knitting equipment, including Stoll CNCA and CMS machinery. The goal for us was to make the customization automatic and not a manual process. The factory keyed in the simple order information, which the program we wrote fetched from the computer through the Stoll Selan. Once the quantity reached a producible amount, and products were knit automatically and sequentially one after the other without the machine stopping except for yarn or a needle break. This is because Stoll in the only machine builder in the world that has a computer on the machine, not just a monitor, and we do not write in WYSIWYG off-the-shelf software, but use the Sintral operating language, developed by Thomas Stoll, to its optimal. From the Apple IIe in 1978, and to this day, automatic mass-customized, sequential knit processes are what we build.
If you would like to read more about Randesign: http://personalbabyproducts.com/us/
Stoll Selan works with Apple computers and the later Silicon Graphics based Sirix. Selan is a computer itself and can test programs, run up to 128 knitting machines, cue orders, send reports, and was an ethernet system before ethernet existed commercially
Another such company that utilized mass-customization in the late 1980s and 1990s was French Rags, which was owned by Brenda French in West Los Angeles. Brenda designed and curated a complete line of sweater dressing every season. She had 5 sizes, 60 colors, and 200 jacquards. This meant exponential combinations and variations of each style, in 5 sizes. Doing all this manually was causing slow production, bottleneck in one department, and high damage factors. Her market was direct to consumer – true customization. For each program on the knitting machine, Fabdesigns built automatic software to make automatic sizing for made to measure alterations. There could be a total of 140 garments or more that could be made from each program automatically and sequentially. Brenda has been on CNN’s Pinnacle and in Inc. magazine talking about mass-customization.
If you would like to read more about Brenda: https://frenchragshappenings.wordpress.com/the-principals/
Right: Vintage Apple & Silicon Graphics systems
In 2003, Bruce and I were coaxed into starting our own contemporary line of clothes, Concetta Bruce, which was very different in style and business model from French Rags. We sold to 368 of the top women’s designer boutiques in the US, on a mass-customization basis. We had reps in Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, and NY/PA, to whom we sent a line, but we included a matrix. The matrix allowed stores to customize their order by choosing the body type, sleeve, length, neckline, and colorway. Everything was knit and assembled to order in our factory in North Hollywood with nearly zero waste. Our programs had 200+ variations for all sizes XS to XL and our plus line XXL to size 22 in several colorways. We successfully sold thousands of these mass-customized garments from 2003 to 2010.
The biggest lesson we learned in doing our own mass-customized line is that not everyone is comfortable making choices. There was a limit to what people wanted to customize. A great majority chose to buy their products exactly the way they saw them presented. Some switched sleeve length or a neckline. But, when it came to playing with changing colors we had very few. There was a limit to where people could not visualize the finished product and were overwhelmed. One year we knit tons of swatches and fewer garments. People preferred full garments. We can honestly say that people who bought sweaters ‘as is’, were just as happy as people who customized their orders. I recently heard a couple of NPR stories on the multitude of product choices being overwhelming and asking if we were happier to have so many options. If you would like to read about Sheena Iyengar’s research findings and Psychologist Barry Schwartz here:
Our main issue with people who customized was returning custom product. Even though there were few, we likely could not resell the exact product to anyone else and had to donate them as an exit strategy. But considering that these were few, and there always will be a return or two when you are in business, this is much better than tons of dead stock. Here are some of the pros and cons that we have seen.
1. No deadstock
2. No cost for stocking dead stock or floor space required
3. No markdowns
4. Agility: Fast turn on trend
5. No lost sales due to fabric being out of print/stock
6. Knit to shape – zero to minimal waste
7. Always have what the customer wants
1. Capital investment in machinery – enough machinery to handle volume, spikes, and staying power to weather staccato sales or lows
2. Need a strong marketing campaign to drive consistent sales
3. Know-how to build the matrix of modular sub-processes that can be streamlined
4. Business model must be in eaches rather than volume
5. Must ship in eaches – costs are more per unit than volume
6. Customer service is key – each sale is PR
So, in choosing to pursue mass customization, choose wisely and for the right reasons.
For some time now, medical companies have been making one-off prescription stockings in Germany using a computer system that is preprogrammed with RAL standards for compression. The software was developed and is sold for this purpose - mass customization on an individual basis. Could you imagine the stock these companies would need to knit in advance to have every possible configuration available on-demand, should a patient need it? The variations are exponential.
The next generation that is evolving to make mass customization more of a norm than a specialty process, combines mass customization with an agile production organization, all through the computer system, for total control of machines and orders, so that we can do fully-fashioned, sequential knitting, knitting the whole product completely, or even cut and sew. In this new system that integrates past knowledge of the Selan and takes it to a much higher level, we are able to plan far in advance, see the past, and have real-time information that can be shared beyond the knitting floor. We will be getting this system in the next month or so and will be putting it through its paces. Stay tuned for an update in the months ahead.
Connie Huffa – Fabdesigns, Inc.
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