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A Breakaway: Athletic Knit Revolutionizes Jersey Making with Array

Updated: Mar 8

Athletic Knit is innovating on a crucial step in their current jersey production process—the creation of custom name bars, logos, letters, and numbers—by drawing on the many production advantages of additive manufacturing. These are typically sewed with twill materials using a time-consuming, two-step process. Athletic Knit has discovered a way to get around the traditional production method's bottlenecks while laying the groundwork for increased throughput, durable, fabric-like materials, and lower costs by collaborating with Mosaic at different stages of the process.

Mosaic and Athletic Knit

Premium athletic team apparel and uniforms are produced by Athletic Knit, a leader in the industry. The company was established in 1962 and has its headquarters in Toronto, Canada, in a modern facility with 150,000 square feet. Athletic Knit, also known as AK, is based on the principles of excellence in product, support, and dependability. These principles not only guide each member of the AK team, but they also permeate every aspect of the business.

The teams at Mosaic and AK shared a common vision for using additive manufacturing's technological advancements to innovate on a more conventional manufacturing process when we first started working with AK back in 2017. The main goal of this innovation was to maintain the high-quality jersey product line for which AK is renowned while increasing production throughput and easing pain points in the conventional sewing process. By incorporating an additive solution into their manufacturing process, AK would be able to meet the rising demand from customers for more customizable jerseys with quicker turnaround times. In order to give their customers that customization, AK introduced a fully embedded automated customization and quoting web-tool in 2019. A quick digital ordering process is not advantageous if the traditionally run factory can’t keep up.

All this preliminary research had the unintended consequence of providing Mosaic with an answer by August 2020 that would satisfy AK in every way: Array. With its Array FFF 3D printing system from Mosaic, which increases throughput and streamlines the production ordering flow process with Canvas, mass-produced jersey decorations now have an in-house solution.

Athletic Knit’s Conventional Production Process - Embroidered Twill

The majority of jerseys' base layers are made of fabric, but the part that varies the most and receives the most customer input are the decorations made of layers of a fabric called twill. Logos, name bars, and lettering/numbering on the front, sleeves, and back of the jersey are all examples of this. Particularly for logos, these are frequently one-of-a-kind components made to order in various materials, colors, and finishes. The entire process is very involved because each jersey can have up to 7 custom embellishments in any number of colors and materials.

Many of these decorations have distinct regions of various textures and colors, which necessitate sewing multiple layers of fabric together. The current labor-intensive process used by Athletic Knit requires a laser cutter to cut individual layers of mayoral and a butcher to sew these layers together precisely and consistently.

Jersery logo with several stacked layers of cut fabric and embroidery

This time-consuming process is where Mosaic and AK sees room for improvement. By doing so, they will be able to make more decorations in a single day and better satisfy customer demand for greater customization without increasing risk, workflow complexity, or cost.

A Cursory Glance at Array and Printed Twill

With the help of Array's multiple filament printing, AK is able to accurately mimic the color and embossed features of conventional embroidered twill production. Then, fully automatic filament switching takes that one step further, streamlining the entire material management process by taking the labor-intensive task of changing sewing machine threads and spools.

AK can produce an equal number or more of these parts well before any deadline thanks to FFF and Array in particular. The multicolor requirements of twill decorations are difficult for traditional FFF 3D printers to meet in a single print, but Array is able to do so. To match the appearance and texture of conventional embroidered twill decorations, additional factors must be taken into account, but we'll cover those in more detail later in this report.

Although adopting FFF would have significant effects on finances and production, Athletic Knit's mission to provide superior quality and durability remains constant. The traditional embroidered twill decoration would have to yield to the FFF print in terms of both aesthetic appeal and structural quality. Working together with the team at Mosaic Solutions, AK and Mosaic were able to meet the following high standard:

Prototype jersey, with a number, logo and name-bar made with Array and Mosaic Materials

Incorporating Array into the AK Workflow

Two crucial steps in AK's current production process were identified by Mosaic and Athletic Knit as opportunities for throughput improvement. Our current objective is to modify the production process in the most effective way to incorporate Array. In light of this, we have found a production technique that makes use of an Array and which will eliminate bottlenecks while preserving the essential qualities of AK's product line: quality and durability.

Array Method

This strategy takes advantage of AK's knowledge of the most efficient traditional sewing aspects of their workflow and eliminates a bottleneck caused by sewing together the two layers of fabric that form the base of each namebar. From a financial standpoint, eliminating the sewing step saves AK's machine operators several days of labor. These labor hours can then be reallocated to different manufacturing processes to address other factory throughput bottlenecks.

Working with FFF Materials

Although when thinking about FFF, plastics are typically the first material that comes to mind, the Mosaic Solutions team is collaborating closely with the AK production team and several material development partners to print, prototype, and test a wide range of materials in order to find the best solution. Replicating the appearance and texture of traditional twill using FFF materials can be difficult because these materials frequently have a high sheen and obvious layer lines, which AK considered to be major drawbacks for the end user experience.

There are several conditions that must be met before a digital printing process can be used in place of embroidery:

1) Cost - If the final component is too expensive, wide adoption would not be possible. Finding an affordable material that meets the specifications for the finished part, prints components quickly, and uses minimal amounts of material is the key to fulfilling this requirement.

2) Color - Mosaic Solutions and AK have developed a collection of 18 core materials, with a maximum of 8 materials per part, that can be used. This multi-color feature is exclusive to Mosaic because the company uses its Palette X technology to produce multi-color output without the need for operator intervention.

3) Cosmetics - The textured embroidery feel, and premium nature of this component go hand in hand. The teams overcame a significant obstacle—getting a printed part to look and feel like fabric—by creating a unique material, as well as through extensive testing and tool pathing software optimizations.

4) Sewability - Mosaic Solutions and Athletic Knit needed the end piece to be sewn to a jersey, so their teams had to create a specific geometry to combat the stresses that sewing would cause to the material.

5) Repeatability - Consistency between each printer is a crucial requirement when producing hundreds of parts on various printers within an array. Each of the 100 parts that AK would print on Array must have the same appearance regardless of which printer created them.

6) Inner part adhesion - Letters must adhere to the substrate as if they were sewn. 6) Inner part adhesion If letters started to peel or fall off, AK would have serious support problems and expensive replacement needs.

7) In-service durability - To ensure that neither the components nor the finished product degrade, the printed parts and final product must withstand countless washer and dryer tests.

Right after the break, Mosaic and AK concluded that PLA's rigidity was ill-suited to this particular application because jerseys should be as flexible as possible, unlike most clothing. Considering this, modified versions of popular flexible materials like TPE offer a matte texture that resembles twill more closely. TPE, however, came with a significant trade-off - It lacks durability.

Introducing Mosaic E-Twill Filament

The Mosaic Solutions team enlisted the help of our material development partners to create a flexible material with a texture and appearance like fabric. A material with the required properties was chosen after testing several polymer families. This material has a no-shine finish that closely resembles the look and feel of fabric, high color quality, and the flexibility of most other materials in its family. When stretched and bent in particular ways, it exhibits a special thread-like durability and appearance that makes it the perfect replacement for twill fabric. For the first time, experts at AK look directly at the printed twill parts and find them confusingly like the traditional. This was made possible by optimizing the production process of this material. The Mosaic Solutions and AK teams had successfully overcome one of the project's most difficult challenges thanks to this similarity. A 3D printer was able to produce parts that met the required quality standards.

Above: Close up of a jersey name bar printed using Mosaic Materials E-twil Filament

Initial test prints in this material provided another aspect to consider. The thickness of the layer lines and sheen level can be changed by modifying print parameters like infill and extrusion depth. Although AK prefers this matte configuration, there is still room for further fine tuning when working with the materials beyond high level parameters.

Mosaic is closely collaborating with AK to optimize Mosaic E-Twill and the various software parameters that may affect the overall output quality with Canvas using our own lineup of FFF materials.

For more information on MOSAIC MANUFACTURING, please contact your local Dynagraph representative.

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