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Building a Flex Factory for Textiles

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

By Advanced Textiles Source

This article was published in Advanced Textiles Source October 24, 2022.

“Designing is the easy bit, manufacturing is the hard bit,” offered Dr Andre West at the beginning of his presentation at IFAI Expo 2022 titled, “Flex Factory, innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability for the future.” West is director of the Zeis Textiles Extension at Wilson College of Textiles. The two facilities will sit alongside one another at North Carolina State University (NC State). This speaks to the intention of planning so that the two benefit from one another. This may seem like common sense, but in the academic world it is far from a given.

The name “Flex Factory” was chosen to reflect the need to embrace new technology as it emerges. Dr West gave the example of scanning that has been around for about 20 years, but in his opinion it has never really worked. “No one really wants to scan themselves because they have to get undressed,” he said, drawing knowing laughter as he pointed out our human aversion to being presented with uncomfortable information.

Privacy is also an issue. However, these need to be overcome as Dr West pointed out that the biggest way of enhancing sustainability in his view is by increasing how much we wear the clothes we own. To do this we have to make the customer part of the process and integrate them from the very start. So how will Flex Factory contribute to this?

The Leading Makerspace

The Flex Factory will house 5 model manufacturing and testing labs: spinning, knit, weave, dye/finishing and testing. With predicted revenues in excess of $2.5 million in FY2023, it is anticipated to attract hundreds of industry partners with revenues to fund seven graduate and thirteen undergraduate students. The ambition is matched by the vision to be, “the world’s leading makerspace for entrepreneurs seeking to develop fiber and textile-based products and businesses.”

Digitization lies at the heart of the facility with a more user-friendly approach to body-scanning that can then be used for 3D visualization, pattern making and manufacture of the garment. In this approach one uses self-scanning via smart phone, using automated pose guidance.

Tension and pressure mapping is available to help guide and evaluate garment fit, saving prototyping time and material in the development stages.

First to launch at Flex Factory will be the print and dye technologies, which will be made available in January 2023. Dr West was excited to share the news that another IFAI Expo exhibitor, Twine Solutions, headquartered in Israel, was scheduled to deliver a machine to them the week following Expo. Twine offers a digital thread and yarn dyeing solution that is waterless and sustainable, saving around 7L of water for every cone dyed.

A single cone of white is used, this is unwound, to passes through an inkjet print process with eight cartridges providing the ink. Colors can be drawn from a Coats catalogue, or users can create their own. The thread or yarn passes through a drying chamber to dry and ensure that the colour is fully absorbed.

The final lubrication occurs as the fiber or yarn is being passed onto the spool or cone at the final part of the process. Providing access and training for sustainable technologies such as this brings benefit to industry, young entrepreneurs, students and academia—a gain all round.

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