Tomorrow's World

Digital fashion and textiles: the next challenges

by FESPA Staff | 21/10/2022
Digital fashion and textiles: the next challenges

Alexandra De Raeve, at HOGENT University of Applied Sciences & Arts, on maintaining the garment printing industry’s innovation while tackling sustainability problems of the sector, through further digitising design and production processes.

The increasing number of extreme weather events has, inevitably, led many to focus their thoughts on ways to reduce the environmental impact of industries, and – especially given its traditionally relatively high carbon footprint – it’s little surprise that the fashion industry should be front and centre of this process. HOGENT University of Applied Sciences & Arts (familiarly known as HOGENT) is the biggest university of applied sciences in Flanders, and I was a keynote speaker at ESMA’s recently convened textile, printing and sustainability conference to examine ways in which the industry can improve its working practices. 

Its aim is to bring Europe’s fashion and textile industry into line with the principles that underline the EU’s European Green Deal, which is committed to transitioning towards a cleaner, more circular economy, with a zero pollution ambition that ensures both the preservation and restoration of valuable ecosystems. The textile industry’s compliance is just a small part of an economy-wide policy, with everything from construction and agriculture to tourism and even aerospace and defence industries expected to get on board as the EU ramps up its ambitions for both 2030 and 2050.

Education is key

HOGENT have lined up numerous partners with whom to work on the initiative, ranging from textile manufacturers to schools and research centres, while at the same time the university’s own FTILab+ will be pioneering innovative practices that focus on a combination of plant-based materials, enhanced clothing performance and, crucially, a digitised approach to design and production that can be fed through to the industry as a whole. Demand for highly qualified and skilled personnel is increasing. This workforce of the future is the key to competitiveness and growth in the sector. 

Digital modelling and product passports

Naturally, the current trend for fast fashion – clothing bought cheaply and thrown away quickly – is completely at odds with a more sustainable vision for the future, and the European Commission’s 2030 Vision for Textiles has the practice squarely in its sights. Moreover, producers will be expected to make use of recycled fibre whenever possible, and make sure their garments are durable, repairable, free of any hazardous materials, and finally recyclable themselves. This will feed through to every stage of a garment’s life, from sourcing the material and preparing it for weaving, to bleaching and dyeing, distribution and then, once the garment is of no further use, endeavouring to feed as much of it back into the same closed loop.

One way to improve sustainability is by cutting down on shipping costs and ensure localised production for local markets

The ESMA conference highlights a number of processes by which these aims can be achieved, with eco-design being at the forefront to ensure, firstly by using digital modelling and then 3D printouts of prototypes, that waste is kept to an absolute minimum during manufacturing. 

But this digitising extends beyond the design phase and all the way through to the supply chain and business model, to guard against overproduction and inefficiencies further down the supply chain. 

Digitisation in the design stage includes:

  • Technologies for sketching and drawing 
  • 2D and 3D CAD
  • 3D body scanning
  • Digital fabrics
  • Predicting fabric behaviour using mechanical properties and machine learning

Digitisation in the fabric production stage includes:

  • Knitting
  • Digital printing
  • AI for scheduling and design layout of production (optimisation technologies)
  • AI to select appropriate processes and equipment to minimize pollution (Expert systems)
  • AI to choose process and resources to decrease overall costs (Decision support systems)
  • Computer vision for quality control
  • AI tolerancing for fabric colour matching

Each garment should then be issued its own Digital Product Passport – a label which details its provenance and recyclability, as well as its green credentials, allowing consumers to be fully informed about the purchases they are making.

Keeping production local

Europe’s textile industry was estimated to have a turnover of €147bn in 2021 but runs a trade deficit with the rest of the world of almost a third of that amount, and so one way to improve sustainability is by cutting down on shipping costs and ensure localised production for local markets. Textiles manufactured in China or Bangladesh typically take 30 days to be shipped to Europe, with environmental impacts as well as tariffs adding to the cost, making the drive for more home-grown products all the more important – especially when a sustainable, circular economy is within grasp. 

Of the 1.3 million employees in Europe’s textile sector, 25 to 30% will have retired by 2030, making way for a whole tranche of fresh talent entering the industry who will be amenable to changing work practices – especially given a new emphasis on digital technologies – and could help to energise and drive these changes forward. 2030, after all, isn’t the end of the story, and with 3D printing technology being heralded as something of a fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0), the fabric and clothing industry should be ideally placed to face the challenges of the future by building upon the innovations outlined in my keynote speech.

Alexandra De Raeve is Head of Research Centre FTILab+ at HoGent University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

by FESPA Staff Back to News

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