2020 is Year 5 for the AATCC/PRINTING United Alliance Digital Textile Printing Conference, and of course, in this crazy year, the conference was held virtually, and attended by more than 100 industry professionals.
Like most of you, I’ve been involved in way too many virtual events this fall, as we struggle to get information out to stakeholders during this difficult time when we can’t get together in person. While virtual events likely will never be able to take the place of in-person events in many regards, the organizers of this event did a great job of making it easy and comfortable to take advantage of all the great information they were providing. It was broken down into morning and afternoon sessions over two days, with a long lunch break, and consisted of a nice mix of topical presentations and panel discussions, with lots of time for attendees to get their questions answered. It wasn’t all that much different than sitting in a hotel conference room for two hours or so of sessions at a time, excepting, of course, the pleasure of being able to share the experience with peers in person and take advantage of the network opportunities that in-person events offer.
One topic on everyone’s mind, of course, is what 2021 might bring from an economic perspective. Andy Paparozzi, Chief Economist at PRINTING United Alliance, helped address that with a state of the printing industry update. Admittedly, 2020 was a “brutal year” for the industry—and for humanity at large. His research showed that more than 80% of respondents to his COVID-19 Business Indicators Survey experienced reduced sales in the first three-quarters of 2020 as compared to 2019, with an average reduction of about 17%. One apparel decorator noted an 80% reduction in business revenue during the pandemic. The PRINTED United Alliance audience, of course, is broader than just textiles, so respondents represented the broader industry.
That being said, the 17% of companies that grew were, as Paparozzi noted, “aware, entrepreneurial, and agile,” and were able to pivot to pandemic-related offerings such as PPE, social distancing signage, and more.
Much is still uncertain with respect to 2021. The vaccine news is good, but it will take time for it to have a real effect on the economy and the willingness and ability of folks to get back to a somewhat normal life. But Paparozzi presented a fairly positive view of the outlook, noting that there were more forces pulling the economy up than down, including vaccine efficacy. He noted, “Recovery will not reach full strength until we are comfortable traveling, staying in hotels, being in large crowds, and doing all the other things we did routinely prior to the pandemic.” He also reported that economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journalexpect GDP to grow 3.7% in 2021, and he even suggested that growth would be higher, although we likely won’t see that start to happen until sometime in the second quarter. He projects that sales for the printing industry at large will grow 2.5% to 4.0% next year, after falling 15.0% to 18% this year. But he also stressed that much will be different in the post-COVID world, and companies must be aware, entrepreneurial, and agile in order to survive and thrive going forward. We have to acknowledge the fact that it will never go back to “the way things were,” and adjust accordingly.
One company who has done that well is Orbus Exhibit & Display Group. Jaime Herand had a great presentation during the conference on how the company has pivoted its business with the cancellation of in-person events, developing a series of very innovative solutions for pandemic safety that will likely continue to be of value even after the pandemic is under control. The company now offers a full catalog of PPE, gear and ancillary products related to a safe and hygienic environment.
Two other companies shared their “pivot” experiences to adapt to the pandemic situation as well, including DYE-NAMIX and Solid Stone. Including these types of positive stories are important, especially with their ability to inspire others to look at their businesses differently.
Color Management, Sewing, and More…
It always still surprises me that, after all these years, we are still having so many discussions about color management! But we are, and the conference provided great information on that topic in a couple of different sessions. Engagement seemed high on those sessions, so the information likely hit the mark with the audience, especially as they work to transition at least some of their textile printing from analog to digital and address the difference in color that can occur in a transition of this nature.
Another hot topic in the industry is sewing automation, and industry veteran Frank Henderson presented a very thorough discussion, including a presentation about the capabilities of Sewing Manager 4.0, an open source platform that allows operators to monitor full production activities in real time, including when their connected sewing machines are running, what the total output is for each node, how many machines are operating, and what operators are doing. It also allows work instructions to be sent to each individual machine. He notes that while it will be some time before robots will be able to completely take over for human operators in the world of sewing, there are many operations that can be conducted by robots that can achieve a 4X productivity gain as compared to an operator manually doing these same operations, and one operator can manage multiple machines. Sewing automation is an important target for the future, especially in light of the dearth of sewing talent in the domestic labor pool, if we are to be successful in reestablishing a domestic textiles and apparel supply chain once again. During the subsequent panel discussion, it was noted that not only is there a shortage of sewing talent, but there is also a shortage of sewing machine mechanics! His advice to cut-and-sew operations? “If your plant looks the same today as it did five years ago, you need to give it another look!”
Andy Arkin, Strategic Account Manager at Zund, added to the discussion by explaining the difference between laser and knife cutting for textile applications, and identifying the pros and cons of each based on application, substrate, end use, and more. He points out that one cutting application doesn’t fit all needs, and operators should consult with experts as they look to modernize their cutting operations.
Will further automation in these areas drive the development of an increased number of microfactories? Arkin said, “I have been talking to brands and retailers about this for the past eight years. They want to understand it, but they are not ready to change their methods.” He notes that this change will be driven more by entrepreneurs who want to start from scratch and bring in a workforce that can adapt to change on the fly, adding, “COVID will help scale this, especially for smaller brands.” Looking back at other transitions from analog to digital in other printing segments, this has always been the case, and the present time is no different in that respect. I’ve said many times over the years to representatives of established brands, “It is the non-traditional competitors that will emerge and eat your lunch if you can’t adapt to the changing environment.” And that has proven to be the case over and over again.
Will Duncan, Executive Director of SEAMS, added his two cents worth relative to the status of the sewn products industry, its rapid pivot to the production of PPE, and the required changes moving forward for domestic and near-shore production to really take hold, including microfactories and smart factories.
Sustainability is also a hugely important topic in the textiles and apparel industry, and the conference did not skimp here. Of particular interest was a presentation by Chad Bolick, Global Vice President of Brand Sales for UNIFI, who discussed the company’s REPREVE high-performance fiber made from recycled polyester and nylon. He presented a good tutorial on the various types of plastics in the recycling stream and the pros and cons of each from a recyclability and repurposing perspective. In the manufacturing of REPREVE, post-consumer plastic bottles are recycled, washed, and chopped into flake, which is then melted, formed into resin, and made into yarn. Since 2007, according to Bolick, REPREVE has recycled over 20 billion bottles, quite an achievement. The company has also compiled a truly impressive catalog of brands that use REPREVE-based fabrics and fibers in their manufacturing efforts.
He points out that while Boomers and Gen X want sustainability and see it as a nice to have, Millennials and Gen Z expect and demand it. The hope is these new expectations will drive more power into sustainability initiatives.
David Clark from Huntsman also presented an information session on how to get the most out of your printed fabrics with chemistry. He talked about the various types of coatings and application methods for both analog and digital printing, testing methodologies and the various effects, in both pre- and post-treatment. Coatings and finishes can also have environmental impacts, but during the application process and during use if they slough off in laundry, etc. They can also possibly affect color, lightfastness, durability, etc., in both positive and negative ways. It all boils down to a balance between performance and sustainability.
One topic that came up in the panel discussion that offers some hope for improved sustainability in textiles was full-color digital coloring. Panelists noted that there are a growing number of solutions out there for both dyeing and coating of fabrics that don’t require dye baths or pad applications, use less material, and cause less waste and pollution. Clark noted, “I can see digital dyeing being used more as the technology improves.” We can hope!
Overall, this was one of the better digital conferences of the fall season. The plan next year is to hold an in-person event in Raleigh in December. Let’s hope people feel comfortable and safe by then attending large in-person events. It would also be nice if events like this can leverage this year’s learnings and offer a hybrid approach with at least some of the content being available virtually, for those who can’t or won’t travel to large events. We’ll see!