Production at the push of a button - Industry 4.0 is the future

Production at the push of a button - Industry 4.0 is the future 


“I have been in the textile industry my whole life. So it has been quite interesting to go through a business cycle from the 1960s into the 21st century. It is interesting for me to look back at my starting point, and see how the industry was and where it is today, where the demand and social pressure has increased.”

Peter Kreautler is the managing director and owner of Transfertech, which offers world-class sublimation printing, producing sports apparel on a made-to-order basis. Based in Bangkok, with his extensive experience in the textile industry and entrepreneurial spirit, he has harnessed the potential of technology to stay ahead of the game - exploring the exciting realm of digitalised printing and the seam-to-seam approach that it facilitates.

When Peter thinks back to his mother’s hometown, he paints the image of a time at which there were 167 industrial chimneys in very close proximity, and it was normal to have black feet when you walked around. Today, one of the biggest problems with the garment industry is that because it is so labour intensive, it requires extensive transportation across lengthy supply chains through Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Asia or other nations that are less developed. Due to the labour-intensive nature of the industry, so much moving takes place to seek out cheaper labour - as customers aren’t prepared to pay a German or US manufacturing price. Exploiting underdeveloped nations to feed the fast fashion addiction has been heavily criticized lately. Furthermore, our current system produces so many mass-produced products that don’t get sold and end up in a secondary liquidation market - at steeply reduced prices. The inefficiency funds a whole other class of discount retailers, but at what cost? The cost of the environment? The cost of cheap labour? And almost every industry shares a similar ecosystem which is unsustainable.

Peter has a different approach on the matter, one that encompasses and embraces the technological advances of Industry 4.0. “You have to raise the bar on the industry. From human resource management to the environment. The social responsibility of manufacturers today may be more important than that of governments - to teach people new things, to educate them, to bring them up to a higher level. This high standard has to be brought down to your workforce.” Similar to what Mike Nager states in his quote, “In Industry 4.0, a customer order doesn't start supply chain equipment moving; it turns on manufacturing machines,” Peter’s vision is of how Industry 4.0 will disrupt the industry - maybe for the better.

“In the manufacturing process, there is so much communication between the customer, the manufacturers and the supply chain. There are so many details in the manufacturing of apparel. And I was really tired of this,” Peter says. “I had been doing it my whole life and the problem is all the communication gaps. I said enough is enough. I see the future for us. The vision statement that I made myself 3 years ago says this - “By the push of a button.” I want to run the factory with the push of a button. I want the customer to place an order by the push of a button.” 

“It comes down to simplifying the process,” shares Peter. “Why can’t the customer put their information straight into my production system?” 

This is exactly what he is working towards. “We have created platforms where the customers can log in and upload what they want,” he shares. “The customer, on their side of the platform, can decide on designs and play around with colours. We can automate the colour right away, the first time, so there's no more sampling back and forth. This is what we have been able to achieve over a period of three years, and I am still not finished. I would say I am about 70 to 80% done with what I want to do.” Industry 4.0 has this potential.

Peter recalls times when, in manufacturing, you would have to produce 30 000 pieces or even one million pieces at a minimum. This was reflective of the mindset at the time - produce as much as possible to make the biggest profit possible. However, creating on a made-to-order basis brings in the capacity of producing to a “lot size one” - as Peter is demonstrating with sublimation printing. From this perspective, an entire design can be created to produce and manufacture only one singular item without the need for the back-and-forth complexity of more traditional production processes. While utilising polyester, as in the example of sports apparel, this form of printing ensures that manufacturers operate far more efficiently and effectively. In Peter’s words, you are then able to “Produce what has been sold and not sell what has been produced.”

 “Produce what has been sold and not sell what has been produced.”

“The advantage of this printing technology is that there is no waste and we don’t use any resources like water for example. It is a waterless printing process.” It goes through heat and then a compression system that requires no water, so there’s no recycling that is needed after the printing process. The only thing that can be recycled is the paper - which is all collected and taken to be recycled so that it can be reused in the paper industry. As part of their journey, Transfertech uses environmentally-friendly dyestuffs, certified by Oeko-Tex, and has manufacturing processes that are optimised for minimal energy consumption, solar panels that cover 70% of the energy consumption, and is a certified BLUESIGN System Partner. With these green technologies in place, Transfertech is close to reaching 0% emissions.

Admittedly, as mentioned by our previous guest, Edwin Keh, polyester is not a sustainable textile as it is a non-renewable product that is made from petroleum. Currently, it is the most broadly used material and it is the fastest-growing material, making up 80% of our clothes. Transfertech recognizes this and uses close to 70% of fabrics from recycled polyester-based yarns. Furthermore, their overarching approach takes into account where they need to improve, how far things have come and the bigger picture of where the journey aims to lead to. As with most things, no system is completely perfect, and there is always space to improve. This encompasses Peter and his team’s ambition to become better by using printing technology which makes big cuts on the amount of waste produced in the process, and the intensity of labour required. 

What makes sublimation printing different from conventional printing is two main things. Firstly, it uses special paper which is printed with high-quality dye. Secondly, high temperatures and pressure are applied to the paper and fabric while simultaneously going through a calendar (a specialised printing machine) - and the image that is on the paper is dyed into the fabric. This new technology is leading the way to a more digitised future. And the benefits do not stop there...

“I am lucky I am doing sublimation printing as it is the cleanest of the printing technologies,” Peter explains. “ You print the dye onto paper. So it’s either water-based or solvent-based inks. You print this onto the paper and then into a machine that has a heater. In the heating process, the dye becomes like smoke and goes into the polyester fibre through heat - usually at 200°C (or 392°F). The fibre opens up in the heat and then when it leaves the machine it closes up again so the dye is encapsulated in the polyester yarn.”

Industry 4.0 offers, as Peter passionately states, offers an opportunity to really simplify and automate processes. As we enter a digitalised era - it poses the question of how will the younger generation and leadership slot into a fully automated future? Read part 2 of our conversation with Peter here.

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