It's Not a Color, It's an Aesthetic

This is a trip report. The idea for it began when I overheard a manager from one of our AAPN member companies, Sensient — which among other things creates inks — say that they had managed to create a neon yellow inkjet ink in 4 months rather than the usual 9 months. WHAT? It takes months to creates colors? Why? The other part of the mystery was why a factory asked for the neon yellow and not the brands. As it turns out the factory knew the market better than the brands and knew there was a market for this brilliant glowing yellow sublimation ink.

So a short time ago I hit the road to Italy and Switzerland with Sensient executives Mike Reed and Michael Labella. Sensient Imaging Technologies' lab is located in Morges, Switzerland. I was sitting with Dr. Christophe Bulliard there when he explained that 2.5 percent of fabric printing today is digital and half of that is sublimation. Sensient has worked with the early risk takers, the true pioneers who made the cut from conventional to digital fabric printing. He made the observation that, "the only way digital printing works is to either start with it only or to create a separate department because traditional textilians resist this technology."

Textilians? I suddenly felt myself to be in some mythical Swiss valley populated by the textilians, their suppliers the yarnistas, the all important trimitrons, the services of the logistiserves, all feeding the factorissimos, with everyone responding to the only question the garmentos ever asked, "what does it cost?" Did he mean textile mills were resisting this change? Why? My theory is they knew this was taking supply chain power from the mill and transferring it to the apparel factory. More on that later.

Inks and dyes have been around for a long time. Inkjet inks were developed for digital applications, most notably table top printers. Wide printers were developed to print long banners one at time. These same printers were then adapted to print sublimation inks on paper largely because of R&D invested in by Sensient. While the entire digital movement is hard and requires skilled staffs, the development of inks literally requires the work of PhDs. I know because I saw them throughout the lab during my tour.

One of them, the color chemist Dr. Olivier Morel, said to me, and I paraphrase him, "color is not an ink, its a chemical. I tell my engineers and chemists that they are really scientists and they are not creating liquids, they are creating an aesthetic." Wow. A PhD directly connected and responding to the color creations of artists and designers. Dr. Morel is leading a strategy to expand inkjet to all textiles and all fibers by investing in the development of reactive inks (cotton and cellulosic fibers), acid (nylon and animal fibers such as silk or wool), and pigments (any natural fiber blends).

The application of inkjet fabric printing that most of us have seen is the printing of sublimation inks onto paper for subsequent heat transfer to synthetic textiles. Initially this was for very short, small runs such as creation of jerseys for bicycle teams. We have all seen the bright, skin tight jerseys worn in the Tour de France. But then three things happened in concert – paper got thinner and better; printers got wider and faster; and inks went through Nobel Prize levels of invention and adaptation.

I saw this firsthand, the fastest inkjet printing of fabric in the world, during my tour of Miroglio Group in Italy. When I asked Miroglio's CEO Andrea Ferraro why he had invested millions of euros in partnership with Sensient for digital printing he answered with the two words that drive the leaders in our industry, "sustainability and innovation." When I say "partnership," what I mean is both companies — Miroglio and Sensient — are solving problems that the industry at large still doesn't know it has and these problems are bigger than hitting a specific color.

Big picture: it's the development of the technology of tomorrow.

In Miroglio, I saw sublimation inkjets being sprayed directly onto synthetic fabric that was then routed through a heater so sublimation transfer of color could occur – without paper. I saw regular inkjets being used to print ink directly onto cotton fabric that was rolling 3 mm under seven arrays, each with nearly 100,000 micro inkjet nozzles, firing dots targeting individual pixels at the speed of a bullet onto fabric passing under them at 60 yards per minute — without paper. I saw sublimation inkjet printing of paper passing through the system at 120 yards per minute — TWO YARDS PER SECOND. 

When you get an order for 10,000 yards of a magnificently detailed work-of-art print of fabric, and can turn it out of the mill in three days from the order, where does the cost figure into this? Greater speeds, amazing efficiency, less water, reduced ink waste, less chemical prep, fewer samples, elimination of set up, no storage of conventional ink drums and the ability to print at the speed of the consumer redefines "cost."

Power shift
Value is defined as solving the perceived problems of a specific segment in an innovative way. So, the key is problem solving and the catalyst is innovation. Let's take a look at how innovation caused a power shift in the apparel supply chain by highlighting what some factories in the region have done:
  • First, factories adapted to lean manufacturing. This changed the way manufacturing was done. They became more efficient, flexible, faster, responsive. This allowed them to take power away from regional CMT factories who only sold their labor.
  • Second, they invested in 2D/3D technologies in partnership with their customers. This changed the way design and product development was done. It became faster, self-sufficient, and allowed them to developed expertise in their niche. This took power from the brand.
  • Finally, they committed to sublimation fabric printing with their own printers and Sensient inks. This changed the way fabric was done. It allowed unlimited garment/textile creativity, shortened the supply chain, reduced cycle times, created independence. This took power from the fabric mill.
Think about this. These Americas' factories took power from traditional peers, then the brands and retailers and finally the mills — and, because of proximity, they were closer so they were faster — and because they were leaders in sustainability and innovation, they were safe. These factories became true factorissimos, the real omni-producers, the supply chain's problem solvers. What does this means to the brands?

Business models
It means that U.S. brands can emulate the most successful business models in our industry. Case in point - one day, a merchandising manager visited a factory. On his tour he saw a pair of yoga pants with panels brightly printed. He ordered thousands on the spot, got them in record time, put them on the sales floor and sold them without markdown. I wonder what his accounting team thought of that? Now, looking across our industry, what kind of business model did this rapid sourcing most emulate?

Costco: The big-box retailer places one big order and do not replenish. What a typical retailer would designate as 20 or more SKU's to them is just one — a pallet with a tall stack of different colors and sizes of a garment with one SKU. Was the order for the yoga pants just one big SKU?
Chico's: This retailer's model was that the factory would show a garment it had created, Chico's would buy 5,000 units, put a price on it, send it to stores with no plans to replenish it. This garment was the factory's design through and through. Is this something factories could do more of and expand?
Zara: The fast-fashion retailer turns new orders quickly and and gets them every day. Quality is not how the garment is made, it's the fun of shopping where there's constant product churn. Someone in Zara gets an idea for a garment and three weeks later it's hanging on the rack. Could these speeds be what the U.S. needs?
HSN: The Home Shopping Network preach that it's not the brand, it's the "stand." They tell stories. This retailer describes its products on TV with embellishment of the value and discussion of the application. Are the infinite possibilities of fabric printing what the U.S. needs to feed and foster omnichannel?

In these business models, what the brands get is a stream of products, greater cash flow, increased sales, fewer markdowns and stock outs by design. Remember, Zara paid more than its competition, sold its garments for less than the competition and made up to four times the industry profit margin. In essence, Zara proved that speed kills and showed that when you know operations, it is your process completely. They defied the norm by having millions and millions of dollars of greige goods just laying around waiting for the next small order. And they could ramp up when one or more of these ideas took off and became a home run.

What enlightened factorissimos allow us to consider for the first time is the extreme market advantage of making sure fabric is just laying around at the ready. And unless we agree on the value of this investment, the easy-to-ask "what does it cost" routine will slow this down to a crawl.

American speed
Digital is now. Everything in the cloud got there for one reason only: it was digitized. Everything we see before us — who is phoning us, descriptions of restaurants, maps of cities, photos of people, images of design and full length movies come to us for one reason — they are digital, they are gazillions of little dots organized "up there." The time has come in our fabric-driven industry for a rain of these dots to fall back down from the cloud, to rain down as dots onto paper and fabric, aimed at the pixel level, taking days, weeks, months out of the cycle.

I went on this trip committed to the Americas, knowing the score versus Asia, and confident that inkjet "solved" our fabric limitations relative to Asia.  Then, I saw fabric leaving a printer that looked like a work of art from the Louvre. If I am to believe the highly regarded Dr. Morel, in five years inkjet will grow from 2.5 percent now to a range of 15 percent to 30 percent of fabric printing, and in 10 years Sensient predicts that inkjet will take over as the leading technology for printing fabric. In fact, it became clear to me that Sensient has an ink for virtually every textile — polyester, nylon, cotton, viscose, linen, silk, wool and blends — and every application — wood, metal, laminates, home furnishing, and more — right now.

What Miroglio is doing with its own fashion brands sold throughout Europe is less fast fashion and more "fashion streaming," the literal flow of ideas and design, patterns and production, styles and services through its tightly integrated processes from the concept to the consumer in days. For AAPN, with the majority of our members being closer to the U.S. market already, knowing we've gotten better every day for years, seeing how we can get much faster inspires me to combine two words that we never dreamed would be our competitive advantage: AMERICAN SPEED.™

It's the region's new calling card.

Let the education of the market and promotion of this process begin!

Mike Todaro is managing director of AAPN.
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