Technology in the uniform industry


Friday 25th October 2019
2307

We take a look at how technology has improved the functionality and sustainability of textile and garment production.

Sustainable textile production

Traditional textile production uses water throughout the process, from growing crops to pre-treating fabric, washing, scouring, bleaching, dyeing, rinsing and finishing it. The global average water consumption to produce just 1 kilo of cotton is 10,000 litres. Textile production processes also contaminate the water used.

Much R&D is being done into reducing the environmental cost of this.

One solution that has been in use for around ten years, and which Uniforms by Creative makes use of, is a dry dyeing technique. This uses liquid CO2 rather than water, reducing water use by 99%, chemicals by 70-89%, and energy costs by 50-65%. In addition, less dye is required and any residue can be extracted and recycled, the CO2 can be recycled, and as any water used has fewer chemicals and often no salts, it can more easily be treated for re-use.

More recently The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in South Africa has developed a prototype textile waste water one-stop treatment reactor. Using locally developed nano-powders, it almost instantaneously removes dye from water, allowing factories to re-use it. The technology is now proceeding to industry trials. (See http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/cput-prof-develops-one-stop-solution-for-textile-waste-water-2019-07-10/rep_id:4136)

Recycled fabric

Polyester can now be 95% manufactured from recycled plastic bottles. The bottles are broken down into flakes which are melted to extrude a fibre used to create suiting material. This innovative recycled yarn has almost doubled its market share in 10 years . Uniforms by Creative supplies corporatewear made from this more eco-friendly fabric.

Textile recycling is generated from two primary sources:

Pre-consumer: includes scraps created by yarn and fabric by-products.

Post-consumer: includes garments, upholstery, towels, household items to be re-purposed.

Most recycled cotton is produced from pre-consumer waste, such as cutting scraps since post-consumer waste is more difficult and labour-intensive to sort through due to colour and fabric variants.

A group of European companies is developing a system called Fibersort (see https://smartfibersorting.com/) that can automatically separate large volumes of garments by fibre so that clothes made of a single material can be made into new garments.

The fabric is run through a machine that shreds it into yarn and then into raw fibre for spinning back into new yarn. However, this shredding process strains and breaks fibres, meaning the recycled fabric is low quality and it must be blended with other materials for strength and durability, meaning it can’t be recycled again.

As such, recycled cotton is generally used as mop heads, stuffing and insulation, the latter of which is what happens to Uniforms by Creative’s unusable workwear.

Nevertheless, this process can divert billions of tons from landfill and reduces the amount of energy, water, and dye used to produce the new products. In the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (see https://msi.higg.org/page/msi-home), recycled cotton fibre scores an impressive 1 compared to 11.9 for organic cotton and 60.5 for conventional cotton.

However, a Swedish recycling mill has become the first to develop a process which can be used on an industrial scale to turn tonnes of cotton into a pulp called circulose which can be re-used several more times to make new garments. (See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/technology-49762410/the-new-high-tech-way-to-recycle-old-clothes)

There are very few suppliers that recycle used polyester garments or fabrics though there is nascent technology for chemical recycling of cellulosic, polyester or blended materials, thanks to companies like Evrnu and Worn Again, though it is cotton that has the biggest opportunity for short and medium term scaling and impact.

Wrinkle-free fabric

Cotton is often used for apparel due to its dye-ability and durability. However, cotton is prone to creasing because its chemical chains don’t stretch. When they are bent or crushed, they break and the broken ends slip past each other and bond with other chains, effectively ‘fixing’ the new shape ie a wrinkle.

This creates a big disadvantage for cotton in that it needs a lot of laundering care and doesn’t look good for long. After the introduction of non-iron polyester, the cotton industry needed to develop a wrinkle-free fabric in order to compete. The result was to apply a resin to the fabric to strengthen the bonds. Unfortunately these resins were made with formaldehyde which can irritate skin and leak from the clothing during manufacture and washing, polluting the environment.

Scientists have worked to reduce the levels of the chemical present today, and many countries have legislation banning it altogether.

Other scientists have developed a formaldehyde-free application containing citric acid and xylitol made entirely of renewable raw materials. However, these reagents are more expensive than the traditional formula and so haven’t been widely adopted.

As a result, many people prefer polyester. Ministry of Supply has invested its efforts in improving this fabric’s breathability, durability, comfort and wrinkle resistance. Body heat, rather than chemicals, is the agent which releases and relaxes wrinkles in this company’s “Kinetic Pants”. (See https://ministryofsupply.com/pages/technology)

Cooling fabric

brrr° has developed denim, nylon and polyester fabrics which are scientifically proven to be cooler to the touch, more effective at wicking moisture away, and quicker drying than other ‘cool’ fabrics.

With summer temperatures hitting the headlines more and more recently, this is good news for companies with staff working outdoors or in high temperature environments.

(See https://brrr.com/proven/)

Intelligent heat

Ministry of Supply has developed a jacket with built-in heating elements which uses artificial intelligence to learn and keep the wearer at their preferred temperature in different environments.

The tech in this garment doesn’t end there either. It’s voice controlled, and automatically senses movement and body and outside temperature. And it can wirelessly charge a mobile phone in the pocket. (See https://ministryofsupply.com/blogs/tested/mercury-the-first-intelligent-heated-jacket)

RFID

Waterproof radio frequency ID tags can be discreetly sewn in or heat sealed to each item of uniform during the manufacturing process. This allows garments to be uniquely identified and automatically tracked using handheld readers, or equipment such as conveyors at pick up and drop-off stations.

The technology eliminates item losses, and provides an additional layer of security for high-risk organisations.

It replaces fading garments based on number of uses and cleaning, rather than through set time periods, reducing orders.

It’s particularly useful for hospitality uniforms which are sent collectively to be laundered to control cleaning frequency and save time in counting garments and incorrect invoicing.

It also enables paper-free administration as employees can sign for their garments electronically.

As an added bonus for the hospitality industry, the tags can be sewn into gowns, towels, bed linen etc to prevent all-too-common theft.

Garment Branding

Our in-house production facility, Infinity Apparel, invests in the latest technology to make branding your workwear as sustainable, high quality and cost-effective as possible.

New HD laser screen cutter

Our screen cutter etches the garment design onto the screen for screen printing work. Not only is our new HD laser cutter super efficient timewise, cutting a 6-7 minute job down to 2.5 minutes, but it’s reduces waste too since it doesn’t use any environmentally-harmful inks or consumables.

Screen Printing

We recently purchased a state-of-the-art automatic screen printing machine, one of only a select few in the United Kingdom.

The garments are placed on a multi-armed machine, each of which has a screen for a particular stage of the colour and design application. A heated element dries the print between each stage. The machine can handle 14 different screens/stages. The process is fully automated and looks incredible when you watch a garment being branded from start to finish. The technology improves consistency and quality and has reduced the amount of spoils that occur as industry standard from human error. It has also significantly decreased the time it takes to produce orders, meaning our customers benefit from shorter lead times.

We can produce 36,000 garments in 24 hours.

Transfers

At Uniforms by Creative our specialists print our quality transfers in-house and use heat presses to apply them to the garment, with the capability of applying 23,000 in 24 hours.

Recent developments in heat seal transfers mean they are a lot more durable than they used to be, and capable of being washed at 60 degrees, which is a requirement for roles where items of uniform get more heavily soiled and stained such as cooks and maintenance personnel. As they cost less than embroidery, they are a good branding solution for items of uniform which are replaced regularly.

We have two methods of printing transfers: screen print, producing 10,000 transfer sheets and digital print producing 22,000 in 24 hours. For digital, we can produce a staggering 2.2 million logos a day!

Digital Transfer produces a lower quality finish than screen print but is ideal for:

1. Intricate designs which combine a variety of different colours and patterns

2. Branding items that are difficult to lay flat for a screen print

3. Low quantity orders

4. Lowering costs.

New embroidery capabilities

Embroidery is a high quality method of adding your logo to your workwear. As it’s so durable it’s particularly suited to long-lasting uniform items such as bags and hats.

We’ve recently expanded our embroidery department which an additional 8 head machine, boosting our output to 10,000 items per 24 hours.

We also have a single head machine for lower quantity orders.

Automated Packing

Our new automated folding, bagging and sealing machine can pack 20,000 garments in 24 hours.

It reduces our overheads as many more items can be packaged than manually, quality is high and consistent, it can accommodate workload fluctuations, and it uses materials efficiently, which also reduces environmental waste. Our staff benefit from being spared this monotonous and strenuous task, working instead on areas where they can make a more valuable contribution.

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