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The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation

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Bringing affordable ‘mass-customisation’ techniques to the clothing industry

Thanks to the OPEN GARMENTS project, we should all soon be able to go online, specify the precise design we want for that new shirt, dress, accessory, or whatever, and have it delivered to our door in days. All at a cost that is comparable to that of a traditional mass-produced item.
Based on the capabilities offered by the internet, this is a revolution in clothing manufacturing which not only brings exciting possibilities to the consumer. It also offers radical new opportunities for European businesses to enter, and compete successfully in, the clothing industry – in particular for smaller scale businesses from SMEs down to micro-businesses of just one or two people.  It is a truly win-win innovation, adding value to consumers while at the same time breaking down traditional barriers to entry for new businesses.

Indeed, it is quite possible that the consumer who begins by specifying an ideal design for his/her own garment might find that the design becomes so popular in the online community that what started as a simple online shopping trip turns into a life-changing business opportunity.

OPEN GARMENTS was based on three key principles which, taken together, encapsulate the way in which the internet is disrupting and transforming traditional business models. The first is the concept of ‘Open Innovation’, in which online communities of customers and businesses collaborate and share knowledge to help improve products. Familiar examples of this in other spheres are Wikipedia or ‘open-source’ software. The second key idea was that of ‘Open Manufacturing’, in which no single manufacturer ‘owns’ the process as in the past. Instead, a flexible network of small production units, from SMEs to micro-units, are geared up for the rapid and flexible fulfilment of small batch-size orders or even single items.

The third component – a ‘Manufacturing Service Provider’ (MSP) – ensures the important behind-the-scenes coordination and management functions. Acting rather like the brain, or central nervous system, of the entire operation, the MSP links consumers and enterprises, providing such things as online ‘toolkits’ for designing and ordering for consumers, as well as ‘back-office’ functionality for the Open Manufacturing network in areas such as accounting, production planning, and order tracking.

“In essence,” says the project manager, Dieter Stellmach of Deutsche Institute für Textil- und Faserforschung Denkendorf, “OPEN GARMENTS realised the powerful potential of combining social and organisational networks.”

But it was this very networking capability which also provided the project’s key challenges. Whereas traditional clothing manufacture has taken place in large-scale, monolithic, continuous-production factories, the dispersal and fragmentation of the process between large numbers of networked participants required a radically new way of working.

How to achieve accurate digital printing of the clothes was one issue that had to be faced. “We all know,” explains Mr Stellmach, “how the colours of an image on a smartphone look different when printed on paper. That problem is even more complex when printing textiles. Different fabrics take ink in different ways. In addition, because fabrics, unlike paper, tend to absorb liquid ink, they can stretch or shrink as a result.” Clearly, getting this right was vital if customers were to receive the garments they had actually ordered. OPEN GARMENTS team successfully developed a prototype method for ensuring accurate printing.

Other breakthroughs included a prototype garment ‘configurator’, to allow customers to design their items, a prototype system for ensuring the correct sizing of garments more reliably than by simply asking customers to measure themselves, as well as a prototype network of ‘microplants’ to carry out the various stages of manufacture such as printing, cutting and sewing.

“While work still needs to be done to perfect the system,” says Mr Stellmach, “most of the components are now ready and we can expect to see the OPEN GARMENTS model in commercial operation in the foreseeable future.

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