SPESA Trip Report: JC Sprowls

SPESA Trip Report: J C Sprowls

Follows is JC’s trip report which he’d subtitled, _The Sex Appeal of Technology_. Thanks JC!
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I did a lot of homework leading up to the show because I wanted to make the most use of my time. In the end, I built a very aggressive schedule. Prior to the show, I went window shopping (with notepad in hand) to look at how products similar to mine will be sold in the retail environment. I took careful notes about packaging, size tags, hang tags, etc. I even bought a few items so I could take them home to rip down and analyze everything from packaging (i.e. how many pins in a shirt) to sewing, finishing and inputs. I created a notebook with illustrations and samples plus I collected samples of all supplies I have in inventory that need to be sourced. Two days before the show, I thought I was ready… wrong!

It was a veritable free-for-all for an infovore like me. I did stick to the plan as far as walking up and down each aisle looking for prospective suppliers. I carefully selected the marketing collaterals I would take back to the hotel to review and follow up on over the next couple days. I also scoped out which of the machine manufacturers were demonstrating the equipment that I wanted to test drive. Despite my best intentions, that didn’t keep me from being distracted on occasion. Two areas of significant interest to me was the America’s 21st demonstration that Kathleen wrote about previously and the Cool Zone that [TC]² coordinated.

The Cool Zone was a demonstration of many different “cool” things in general but, [TC]² wrapped some context around these disparate features by demonstrating an on-demand conversion operations model (video introduction). Some of you may be familiar with the concept of on-demand publishing. In that model, an electronic manuscript is uploaded to a distribution center, which feeds several retail venues, like Amazon, Borders or Barnes & Noble. A customer purchases the book from the retailer and the manuscript is queued for conversion into a tangible book just before it is shipped. It is a purely “pull” model; and, the Cool Zone model is similar.


The Cool Zone used a printed fashion tee-shirt as its demonstration product. The spectator traversed through each step of the manufacturing lifecycle, witnessing how each of these technologies can be integrated into a functional model. At the start you step into the [TC]² white light scanning booth so your custom measurements can be uploaded into the CAD /CAM system. The next step was to watch knit fabric undergoing an ink jet printing process. The printing system uses specially-formulated inks that do not require pre- or post-finishing (e.g. heat set, etc). At the end of the print job, your length of printed goods is cut off the bolt and sent to the single-ply CAM cutting table. An optical laser on the cutting device aligned registration marks that were printed onto cutaway areas of the goods, so your design was properly located. A stock tee-shirt pattern is digitally graded to your custom measurements in the CAM system, real-time. The garment pieces are cut and, then bundled to proceed through a short sewing line.

A downfall of this demonstration was that it did not appear to work in cooperation with America’s 21st. The four operators were seated, effectively doing a batch of one for the sewing of your tee-shirt. The entire demonstration was timed to run about 40 minutes and in most cases, your custom tee-shirt was ready for you to take hot off the line. As the days wore on, the various operations areas developed backlog and spectators could retrieve their shirt a few hours after their tour. Myself, I didn’t actively participate. I simply shadowed several others through their meanderings – which was enough for me. I did hijack the occasional question however :).

While at the Cool Zone, I was immediately drawn to the Shima Seiki whole garment knitting machines. It’s very sexy technology. At some point, I might consider contracting with someone to produce a few designs but that’s a while down the road. Nonetheless, keeping an eye on technological advancements is necessary and fun! Incidentally, there’s a used one for sale on eBay if anyone is interested. A side note: the Shima Seiki demonstration was an adjunct to the operational model being demonstrated. Their machines & solutions were not integrated for the show. Tukatech was also part of the Cool Zone, demonstrating eFit Simulator; but, again, their products were not integrated into the demonstration. Neither was Paxar’s Magic Mirror, which seemed a little too Jetsons to me.

Another company that interested me was Human Solutions. They offered a similar scanning booth to [TC]²’s white light scanning technology but their product is portable, lighter and just as accurate (I tried to get both of these organizations to email me my personal measurements for validation; but no-can-do!). The price for both the [TC]² and the Human Solutions scanning booth and operating system was the same ($40K) but ease of portability is a strong selling point for the Human Solutions product because it allows a measuring service organization to travel and provide services to many retailers or manufacturers.

Human Solutions is also working a slightly different angle, focusing on marrying retailers with made-to-measure manufacturers (pdf). In their model, the MTM manufacturer posts a catalogue of styles with fabric and findings selections, the retailer assists with the sale, collects the order and passes it back to the CAD/CAM-ready manufacturer for on-demand production. The manufacturer maintains inventory and can integrate their ERP system (additional development costs) with the Human Solutions network to drop styles or components that are no longer available. Each are different flavors of the same solution but the Human Solutions flavor appears to deliver a stronger value proposition with a better total cost of ownership. There are also several other advantages to consider:

  • allowing the manufacturer to control the available styles & components means smarter scalability and broader selection for the Consumer, and
  • the manufacturer becomes more consumer-facing by partnering with the retailers in the network. This ultimately means a leaner, more sophisticated and more responsive enterprise.

I did not evaluate any of the ERP system vendors while I was there but I’m already doing that off-and-on. Plus, I have the vendor’s list from the show, so I can call out to those folks as time permits. As it stands, I’m leaning either toward Oracle’s eBusiness Suite or OpenMFG. Both of whom offer product configurators, which means you can attribute accurate inventory utilization to each product manufactured. I’m looking forward to Vesta’s review of FrogFish which she purchased at the show.

I did round out my review of technology by visiting Tukatech, Gerber and Lectra for their CAD solutions. Lectra has the nicest marketing collaterals, I will say that much. They claim to have the most advanced cataloguing and MTM manufacturing suite of products, including all software and hardware. But, an initial review of their system and a cursory dive into pricing were vague at best. In short, the Lectra suite will involve a very lengthy (and costly) implementation process which I would like to address in a separate article.

Gerber’s CAM equipment was most impressive and I’m intrigued by the CAD technology that drives it but to be frank, the Gerber grunts weren’t very forthcoming. Kathleen introduced me to the chap responsible for sales the NM & TX territories. He was pleasant and intellectually generous – a real giant among the others. Overall, Gerber did me the favor of inferring that I should check them out when my operation was larger. All the same, implementation is lengthy and costly because their products are “too customizable”. I’m looking for a turn-key solution that scales well. I will likely not ever be interested in a system replacement deal.

Tukatech, on the other hand, has it all. Their products are pre-integrated, enabling a turn-key operation that can scale. They’re willing to talk to the big and small manufacturer without prejudice which tells me they have their pricing act together. I did tag along on a conversation that Kathleen had with Ram (the co-owner) and listened. His company is solving all the problems of the software behemoths by simply being pragmatic, down-to-earth and listening to their prospective clients. It doesn’t matter which CAM equipment you have, Tuka can drive it. It doesn’t matter which printer you have, Tuka can drive it. It doesn’t matter which image capture device you have, Tuka can drive it. Ram will also tell you when to not waste your money (e.g. $3K v. $20K plotter). I am convinced I can sit down with Tuka and flesh out the right CAD/CAM solution for my operation without getting suckered, mostly because they think outside the box. I can’t say the same for Lectra and Gerber, yet – they haven’t left their silo long enough to recognize they have competition.

While exploring the technology layer of my operation was appealing, there’s still the matter of getting the right equipment in, meeting power requirements, obtaining the supplies to make product, finishing, inspecting and packaging. I have more information to share on each of those fronts but, I’ll leave this first report as it is.

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