Leading Japanese computerised flat knitting machine manufacturer Shima Seiki Mfg., Ltd. of Wakayama, Japan exhibited at the International Textile Machinery Exhibition (ITMA 2015) in Milan, Italy. The last time ITMA was held in Milan in 1995, Shima Seiki introduced the world’s first WHOLEGARMENT® knitting machine. Capable of producing a garment in its entirety with no seams, it was revolutionary technology that was proclaimed “The Magic of the Orient” by the industry press. Shima Seiki returned to Milan to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of WHOLEGARMENT® knitting technology under the slogan “Innovation Coming of Age.” Just as a 20-year old assumes new responsibilities as an adult and begins contributing to society, WHOLEGARMENT® is likewise expected to take on an instrumental role in mainstream production in the coming age. To know more, Knitting Views Editor Arvind Kumar met and interviewed Masaki Karasuno, Planning Group, Total Design Center, Shima Seiki Mfg., Ltd. during his visit to ITMA 2015 in Milan.
Please tell us about Shima Seiki’s participation at ITMA Milan 2015? How was the response?
Appropriately for WHOLEGARMENT® the official theme for ITMA 2015 challenges us to “Master the Art of Sustainability.” Although by its very nature WHOLEGARMENT® is considered one of the most sustainable forms of garment production with minimal dependence on labour, material and other resources, Shima Seiki proposed several novel ways to produce WHOLEGARMENT® knitwear even more efficiently by exploiting 3D shaping and tubular knitting characteristics. Furthermore with Italy and the rest of Europe in its scopes, at ITMA we have emphasised the economic and logistic advantages of WHOLEGARMENT® knitting for local production in domestic markets, which further increases the sustainability factor by eliminating time, cost and energy otherwise spent in shipping from off-shore locations.
The show has been excellent for us so far. Especially because it is in Milan, which is the fashion capital and knitting capital of the world. Italy is one of our major markets worldwide, which is very enthusiastic about latest cutting edge technologies in knitting. It’s also a very big market for WHOLEGARMENT® as well.
Please tell us about WHOLEGARMENT®’s journey in last 20 years?
Coming back to Milan for ITMA 2015 is very significant because WHOLEGARMENT® is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1995 in Milan, where 20 years ago we first introduced this technology. ITMA has not turned to Milan since. So, this time both ITMA and Shima Seiki returned to Milan to celebrate 20 years of this technology. At that time in 1995 WHOLEGARMENT® was ahead of its time. We originally planned to release WHOLEGARMENT® in 2000. We wanted to release it five years ahead of its schedule because at the time there was a big wave of imports of inexpensive imports from China and Asian countries, which was diminishing the consumer markets in knitting industry like Japan, the US, UK, Italy etc.
So, that time as an emergency action we brought out WHOLEGARMENT® because it was technology that was able to produce garments without labour. It was a technology too ahead of its time, very expensive, with not very high productivity, and programming was very difficult because it’s a very complicated process. With many innovations in last few years, we were able to make this machine less expensive, more productive, easier to program, and higher performance at a lower cost. Now it can produce unique products that are unique to WHOLEGARMENT®, which are beyond what is capable of knitting with others. So, we are happy that our customers are very happy about it.
Do you still feel there is lots of scope in development of WHOLEGARMENT® technology?
Some of the technologies we only really touched the point. We invented it but there’s a lot more we can do with it. E.g. we have this new SlideNeedle and it has so much potential in different knitting techniques that it can do. It’s also possible for the customers to use WHOLEGARMENT® technologies in other ways. We provide the tool and customers can experiment with it because they can design freely. We also support that kind of experimentation as well.
Now, we want to expand WHOLEGARMENT® into other areas. For more customers to adopt WHOLEGARMENT®s and this is the right time to do that because we offer more technology and innovations at lower price. It gives you cost benefit, cost support ratio and manpower saving. Now we are able to bring production back on shore. So, to make revival of the knitting industry in consumer markets and at the same time those markets also do not have skilled labour force so, it is perfect technology for those areas.
For flexibility of producing garments with different fibre yarn, we have technology that is DSCS – digital stitch control system. This also was introduced in 1985, so this year is the 30th anniversary for that as well. It gives consistent quality for the knitted loops. But before it used to control how much yarn feed into the machine. Now we have iDSCS – Digital stitch control system with intelligence that not only controls yarn feed into the feeding direction but also in both the directions to handle finer delicate yarn, which is very difficult to knit. It has flexibility to produce a wider range of designs. We have a lot of samples with different kinds of designs, cuts, pleats, so many things it can do.
How do you see acceptance of WHOLEGARMENT® in Asian market?
Most of the Asian markets like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan accept WHOLEGARMENT® only because they have already developed their own markets. It all began right after World War – II with Japan having inexpensive labour. Back then Made in Japan was not so good quality. The labour was cheap so we produced the textile base and exported to the US and Europe. Textile machine development also grew in Japan. We produced the textiles in Japan, but as the industry grew when we became more profitable, standard of living grows, so obviously wages rise too. Now, you have to give up production there and go to the next area. So, it went westwards from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. All these areas are now developed markets with consumers’ who have high fashion sense. They require certain level of fashions. Those are the areas where SDS-ONE APEX3 design system and also WHOLEGARMENT® became popular in Asia.
How do you look at Indian market when compared to other Asian markets?
India is a little different market than China. In India some of our customers have WHOLEGARMENT® machines. In China labour rates have increased rapidly. Five years back we were talking it being a global factory for textiles, now it is no longer. They are confused what they should do next, because their export market is taken over by China plus one markets. I think China needs to address its own domestic market because the standard of living is higher now. They are more fashion conscious. There’s a shortage of labour as labour rates are high and labour force itself is going away from textiles. Because of the fast growth it is more IT. The govt. is also not giving that kind of incentives, what they are giving to other industries.
During Chinese New Year their workers go home, but they never come back as there are IT factories back home now, giving better working conditions and higher salaries. Now, textile industry in China is panicking because they don’t know whether or not they can support the demands of the fashion industry. That is where we think WHOLEGARMENT® has great place. Also for designs system for planning and design as well. Now, it is available to help the Chinese industry.
Besides, Bangladesh is now part of China plus one, which comprises Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia as well. Those are still majorly for exports. India is also doing exports but in terms of knitting for us earlier it was more. Now mainly it’s dyed yarn in India for the materials when you ship it to Bangladesh. India too has very huge domestic market. Many of our customers in India are producing garments for domestic market catering to high-end brands.
What are the latest technology trends you are witnessing in flat knitting?
We have a machine called SRY which it is capable of producing unique hybrid knit-weave fabrics that feature inlay yarn woven into knit fabrics. You can produce with yarns and materials which are usually very difficult to knit including monofilament and metallic yarn applicable in technical textiles and sports, medical, automobile, etc.
As we are in Italy, that technology is even popular in fashion and they really extend the applications of knitting within fashion because it’s a high grade knit-weave technology. Not only the flat knitters attracted to that product but also we have interest from circular knitters and weavers because they want to use that kind of fabric as it is very unique. Flat knitting machine is nowhere near as productive as weaving machine. But it is still interesting because we can produce the fabric which is very unique even a weaving machine cannot do the same. We usually produce smaller machine so that customers don’t have to purchase a larger machine than what they really need. We usually have 120 cm width but the boards we use to produce fabrics are 150 cm supply. So, we produce a larger machine.
Also in Italy finer gauges are more popular, and so last year we had up to 14 gauge and now we have new 16 gauge machine. Those are new inventions. Also in shaped knitting, we have SVR, which is a benchmark for our industry that also has new take down system. We have innovations not only for WHOLEGARMENT® but other innovations as well. We also have a cutting machine for sportswear application. In Japan it is very popular, especially in the fashion industry. We have a majority share in Japan. But still not much outside Japan and the European market. This is for the first time we have displayed this machine to this market. We had good response from good sales prospects.
Which areas of application are expected to boost the present flat knitted fabric market?
Fashion apparel market is unstable because there are fashion trends as well as seasonal trends, and it is difficult to invest in all types of machines and gauges to respond to those trends. That is why we offer a comprehensive range of machines and gauges, as well as flexible Wide Gauge machines that can produce garments in a wide range of gauges on a single machine. Besides that, the base price of garments has decreased with global fast-fashion trends, which shrinks profits, hinders investment, and slows down industry innovation and growth. So the industry now looks to other areas of growth, one of which is technical textiles. Sports, medical and other functional wear, gear and other industrial applications are stable, catering to growing markets. Knitting is becoming more popular in these applications for their unique characteristics in stretch and flexibility.
Now lots of emphasis you have given on design software and digital printing. Can you tell us more about the same?
Originally, we came up with printing because that time WHOLEGARMENT® was limited in its capability of making variety of designs. It was a way to add value to the WHOLEGARMENT® product. That’s why we do flat bed printing because we needed to print that on not just panel but on finished product too. So, our printing machine has a print carriage that can be raised according to the thickness of the fabric. Now, it is used in conjunction of variety of padder available on WHOLEGARMENT®.
Printing in general is really taking off right now and it’s a very much of growing sector. For SIP-160F3 flatbed inkjet printing machine we have, it is no longer considered an accessory machine to WHOLEGARMENT®. Now, it is an independent machine that is attracting attention from dyers and finishers, and not just knitters.
Do you have any plan to start manufacturing or assembling in China or any other Eastern countries?
No, we concentrate all our research, development, manufacturing and assembly in one location to assure quality and the reputation that comes with it, as a provider of cutting-edge technology Made in Japan. This is one of our most important selling points. The purpose for manufaturing abroad is only one: To lower costs above all other priorities. That is not where are priorities lie. When you do business with such priorities, you begin to lose touch with your product by selling below the actual value of the machine and sacrificing profits, which means less money going back in to R&D. This stagnates innovation and becomes bad news for future progress in the industry. SHIMA SEIKI is an innovation-driven company, so manufacturing and assembly outside Japan is out of the question.
How has last year been for Shima Seiki in India and Bangladesh? How do you see 2016-17?
Business has been very good for us. We have several new customers, new enquires from Bangladesh customers in very large numbers. Bangladesh has taken over India in terms of flat knit production. But India is growing again in domestic market but for higher end products. Earlier, India was only for exports, and Bangladesh used to be only for collar knitting machine. But now it is into garments, and more high fashion oriented. Overall, we did well in both the markets in last two years.
In future Bangladesh will continue to grow but India will become WHOLEGARMENT® oriented. Bangladesh for the time being will continue to grow for the exports market. The wages are increasing because of the workers’ rights. They don’t have unions yet but that area may affect how much production is possible within Bangladesh.
Is Shima Seiki going to launch any new machine exclusively for the India and Bangladesh market?
As explained above, India and Bangladesh are two completely different types of markets for flat knitting, and therefore we provide different types of flat knitting technology for each.
For India, with its fashion-conscious domestic market we provide WHOLEGARMENT® knitting machines in combination with our APEX3 design system that allows easy planning and design of high-end knitwear, perfect for such markets. This are is undergoing constant innovation, as witnessed by the MACH2XS series machines introduced at ITMA. The aforementioned SRY machine with its capability for new types of stylized fabrics as well as our SIP printing machine are also suited for colorful designs in the Indian market. For India’s export market we offer SVR workhorse machine that features the latest SHIMA SEIKI technology for shaped knitting. Despite our efforts to promote WHOLEGARMENT® knitting technology, we are still committed to the knitting industry as a whole, as seen by the new prototype SVR machine at ITMA featuring a springloaded takedown comb for minimising waste yarn. For Bangladesh, we also have our most economical machine for its mainly export-oriented market. However as higher-end work comes into demand, SVR and other specialty machines may also become part of that market’s targeted technology. In any case, these different technologies cater to different market situations, and India and Bangladesh each have their own individual situations that fit the conditions for certain machines. However, no single machine is developed exclusively for any single market