In my last post I examined technology trends in the PLM area. For the current post, I’m focusing on color development as a key aspect of the product lifecycle for cotton products. This area often involves significant time and resource investment at both the design and manufacturing ends of the chain. Given this context, how are technologies and strategies being employed to improve the process, enhance visibility and support accurate collection and exchange of color information among supply chain partners? Here are a number of trends that may be of interest to the cotton supply chain:
Technology vendors are providing support for the development and execution of best practices with respect to color measurement and communication.
Among brands and retailers there has been broad adoption of spectrophotometers and related software for instrumental color measurement. Datacolor, HunterLab, Konica Minolta and X-Rite are just a few examples of companies offering color measurement systems for textile applications. Software for automatic evaluation of the measured sample in reference to user defined pass/fail criteria is normally part of the capability of a measurement system. These technologies are being used to support digital color communication on a global basis and spectral data obtained via the instrumental measurement process can be passed electronically between supply chain partners. In many cases, instrumental methods are complimented by visual color assessment procedures to support evaluation of samples (such as printed textiles) that can not be measured effectively by currently available equipment.
At the retail end of the chain one of the primary goals associated with technology adoption includes providing an objective, measurable target for the dye house to aim for. In a related trend, global suppliers of textile products are being asked to strengthen their color capabilities. This effort includes an emphasis on the adoption of color measurement technology as well as improvement of technical and procedural knowledge associated with the use of the technology. Ultimately the goal for both parties includes development of an environment in which the product developer has confidence in the color data being supplied by the mill or dye house.
At the technology vendor level, companies are providing color measurement and communication systems and are also supporting adoption of these systems through training at both the brand/retailer and manufacturing levels. Companies including Datacolor and X-Rite offer comprehensive resources and services in this area. In addition, the technology vendor may assist with the development of a brand’s color procedures and/or serve as the point of reference or portal for communication of such procedures. Color procedures for areas such as sample conditioning, instrument settings and calibration, instrumental measurement technique, lighting conditions, color vision testing and visual color assessment methods are specified by the brand or retailer to ensure that color assessments are executed accurately and are repeatable as the sample or product moves through the development and manufacturing phases and toward the retail setting.
To ensure that best practices are being followed, retailers are encouraging suppliers to undertake assessments and certification programs. These assessments are often conducted by a technology vendor or third party and include on-site visits that may focus on the lab setting or reach further into the process examining materials, equipment, systems, process and quality controls, procedures and documentation, as well as personnel skills within the dye house environment.
Natific AG is an example of a company that offers in-depth assessments to identify specific areas for improvement from a technology, process and efficiency level. Suppliers that pursue and earn a specific level of accreditation may be granted the opportunity to bypass the lab dip submission step in favor of a more direct path to production on future orders for a given customer. This arrangement can shave weeks from the development cycle - a benefit for all participants. However monitoring of compliance is an important follow-on stage to ensure that quality and accuracy are maintained over a given period of time and that color issues are identified as early as possible in the product lifecycle.
Technology providers are looking to help supply chain partners manage their color data.
Technology vendors are responding to monitoring requirements by providing software solutions that act as a repository for color data. Quality Control software solutions from leading technology providers such as Datacolor and X-Rite serve as a resource for collection and analysis of data in the coloration area. Natific’s ColorWarehouse is an example of a solution for centralizing and consolidating this production performance data in support of the monitoring effort. Accredited suppliers can enter their color measurements into the warehouse. Product developers or their agents are able to review the data to understand supplier capabilities and assess or track supplier performance over time. The solution is web-based and supports real-time, ease of access to submitted data. The ColorWarehouse also allows for automatic notification when production or performance issues arise.
Integration with PLM
Given the fact that color development is an integral part of the product lifecycle, it’s not surprising that technology providers in the color area are supporting integration with available PLM solutions. Vendors note that passing data from a color system to a PLM system is an exchange that can be enabled without tremendous difficulty from a programming perspective. However, determining what information is required is where the challenge lies for many PLM users. In keeping with a customized approach to PLM implementation, technology vendors in the color area work with brands and retailers on an individual basis to determine and facilitate the best path forward on data exchange.
In some instances, product developers select to use software for color and materials development as stand alone systems. Costs associated with system integration can be a factor in this decision. However, there may also be functional reasons to operate in this manner. For example, a more detailed approach to materials and color development may be required for a specific market, product line or business.
TEXbase is an example of a software solution provider that supports a granular approach to management of materials data. The company offers a suite of solutions that address specification, centralization, management and analysis of data for areas including color development, materials quality and performance, and materials compliance. This technology allows users to define technical specifications for product components and specify test methods and related protocols for those materials. Users are able to access and develop material libraries populated with technical data. These libraries can be used as a starting point for the product development process. Within the color module users are able to define and manage color palettes, requests lab dips and manage submits. Color data is integrated into material and product libraries so that users can search and evaluate materials as a comprehensive technical package. As with color management systems, TEXbase software solutions can be used as stand alone systems. However TEXbase also supports exchange of information and integration with PLM systems as well.
An Updated Definition for Efficiency
As I spoke with technology vendors in the color and materials area, it became apparent that system providers and technology adopters are approaching the idea of efficiency from a broader perspective. While efforts to improve efficiency may focus on reduction in time, labor, materials and cost, an efficiency strategy may also encompass product quality and recognize that the elements listed are often times connected to a more sustainable product development and manufacturing process. Within the color area specifically, reducing the number of iterations in the development phase, eliminating shipping of lab dip samples and/or identifying out-of-tolerance shades or poor quality dyeing early in the process has a tremendous impact on the overall efficiency and footprint of the cotton supply chain. Of course visibility into accurate data at the right time plays a key role in achieving efficiency and an overriding theme with respect to emerging technologies within the color and materials development area.
Toward the end of September I will be traveling to Barcelona to attend ITMA - the International Exhibition of Textile Machinery. Look for my posts on technology highlights and advancements arising from this event.