Woman standing in lab, mannequins in background

Fashion that fits

forschung leben – the Magazin of the University of Stuttgart (September 2021)

Taller, smaller, fatter, thinner: By no means do the standard off-the-shelf sizesfit everyone. Researchers at the University of Stuttgart are developing new bespoke manufacturing technologies that would still enable textile manufacturers to turn a profit
[Photo: DITF]

Among the smart textile machinery and computer workstations, the changing room almost looks like something out of a museum. Immediately behind the entrance to the Textile 4.0 multifunctional laboratory of the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) in Denkendorf near Stuttgart, one sees the dense, khaki-colored curtains between which stands a stocky plastic female-like figure, a good head taller than standard mannequins. If it were a human woman, she would struggle to find well-fitting clothes, which is a common problem, as Prof. Meike Tilebein explains: "Standard clothing sizes do not properly fit about 30 percent of the population." 

VR glasses
Virtual fitting room: VR glasses can be used to see how well certain clothes look on an avatar.

An expert in strategic innovation management, Tilebein heads up the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Diversity Studies in Engineering (IDS) in addition to the Center for Management Research at the DITF and is fascinated by the opportunities that digitally networked development and production processes could mean for the textile and apparel industry: "Not only can one produce things in a better, more sustainable and more cost-effective manner, but completely new business models are also conceivable."

The production of a T-shirt in the Industry 4.0 economy begins in the body scanner. The seemingly old-fashioned changing room houses three laser columns with which a person can be scanned from head to toe in a matter of seconds. A screen immediately displays over 100 measured values – the basis for a digital twin. 

The virtual reality goggles in the lab then show how well this avatar would look in different sets of clothing. Hands and feet can be measured using a hand-held 3D scanner. Another device scans fabric samples and determines their structure and optical properties. The recorded data is then used to generate control algorithms for printing and cutting machines. Blue patterned blanks for a top are in place on the modern single-layer cutter. 

Digitized production could make customized garments affordable for everyone in the future. The textile printing needed to create bespoke designs, such as T-shirts bearing the wearer's name, would not cost very much more. And last but not least, the new technology could facilitate the production of medical aids such as support stockings or pressure bandages, for which an accurate fit is particularly important. The DITF have already demonstrated their complete "Digital Textile Microfactory” at several leading trade fairs, showing everything from the body scanner to 3D design, printing and cutting to joining on a smart sewing machine. Because robots capable of handling textiles well don’t yet exist, sewing still has to be done by humans. But the sewing machine in the multifunction lab can already read the QR codes printed on fabrics to automatically set the feed speed, stitch length and number of stitches. 

Unfortunately, the textile industry is considered to be dusty andold-fashioned, but it is actually a driver of innovation.

Prof. Meike Tilebein

Undergraduates in the "Engineering Cybernetics" program will be given the opportunity to use the laboratory to complete their project planning internship on questions relating to the Digital Textile Microfactory as of the winter semester of 2021/22. Meike Tilebein, who herself studied engineering cybernetics in Stuttgart, hopes to get students more interest in the textile industry: "Unfortunately, the textile industry is considered to be dusty and old-fashioned, but it is actually a driver of innovation." After all, many German textile companies that have survived the various crises and migration waves over the past decades are current market leaders in their respective specialties. 

Laboratory with mannequins
Meike Tilebein's team is developing ideas for digital optimization within the textile industry.

Tilebein also wants to encourage students to think in terms of business models during their project planning internship, to which end they would not only have to think about the technology, but also about the customers: "Not all great technologies make it to market,” she says: often because people fail to recognize potential applications. Successful innovations are created on the basis of a diversity of perspectives."

The same systemic thinking that characterizes the field of cybernetics also shapes interdisciplinary research at the Center for Management Research. In collaboration with industry partners, the researchers are studying the entire textile value creation chain from development to the virtual showroom, one of their central questions being how digitalization could be used to make the industry more sustainable. For example, virtual models of garments and shoes could one day make the production of prototypes and the extensive sample sales collections redundant. "This is not a trivial matter," says Alexander Artschwager, project manager at the Center for Management Research and responsible for the DITF multifunction lab: "Producing a single T-shirt can use up to 5000 liters of water." 

Producing a single T-shirt can use up to 5000 liters of water.

Alexander Artschwager

The savings potential in the mass production sector is even greater. Tilebein believes that the use of these new technologies might make it possible for certain steps in the textile production chain to be relocated back to Europe, perhaps even to the inner cities, in which case, companies could initially produce garments in small batches and then rapidly order more according to demand. "Textile production would become much more demand-driven,” she says A lot of the surplus production currently gets destroyed.” This is also true of many return items. Trying on virtual garments could also go a long way towards solving this problem, as most items are returned because they do not fit or do not look as expected.

But could the digital acceleration of processes not also contribute further to the environmentally damaging "fast fashion” business model, flooding the market with even more clothing at even shorter intervals that would eventually end up in the trash again? The researchers are also studying these so-called "rebound effects". But Meike Tilebein is optimistic: "People won’t be so quick to dispose of clothes that fit perfectly and look good."

Editor: Miriam Hoffmeyer

Prof. Dr. Meike Tilebein, e-mail, phone: +49 711 685 60700

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