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How 3D Knitting Makes Mask Production Easy and Sustainable

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The COVID-19 crisis has put the onus on apparel manufacturers to pivot to a product no one could have predicted would be so necessary to the public just a few short months ago: face masks.

But as more manufacturing lines have shifted to take on PPE production, most masks are disposable, and as such carry a short shelf-life before being discarded. With many Americans going through multiple masks per week, there is significant waste potential. Worse, many of these masks are made with synthetic materials that don’t biodegrade over time.

Fashion technology company Shima Seiki is working to help the industry meet demand in a responsible way.

“With this coronavirus situation, our headquarters definitely felt like there could be more sustainable and reusable alternatives to existing masks out on the market today,” said Hayato Nishi, senior business development at Shima Seiki USA. “If you have a fabric and you need it in a 3D form, we could technically knit it out in any shape, so they came up with the idea of converting a traditional mask into a knitted version. Our latest WHOLEGARMENT machine knits a garment all-in-one piece with little to no waste in the process. Therefore, we do not have to rely on a huge labor force to panel the pieces together and we can reduce on any cut waste going into landfills.”

The company has provided its brand partners with open-source knitting data from its Shima Sample archives for various knitted masks, including 2D, 2.5D and 3D iterations. In total, the company has made available knitting data for 19 different versions of masks that can be produced on both WHOLEGARMENT machines as well as conventional shaping machines.

Shima Seiki partner Ministry of Supply was able to produce 5,000 masks for consumer use based on pre-orders, as of May 5. Additionally, the brand has donated 1,500 knit masks with space for a HEPA filter to health clinics for front-line workers and in-hospital use. Ministry of Supply also has donated 35,000 KN95 respirators and surgical masks.

“We believe rapid production and the opportunity for customized production are really shining right now,” said Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder and president of Ministry of Supply. “This allows for multiple mask sizes, and permutations of designs will increase both the adoption of the masks from an aesthetic point, but also increase their effectiveness due to better fit and increased comfort.”

The direct-to-consumer fashion brand has partnered with Shima Seiki since 2015, when the company first leveraged the capabilities of WHOLEGARMENT to create its 3D Print-Knit Blazer. The company’s ability to pivot to mask production illustrates the agility the industry needs to achieve to keep up with rapidly fluctuating consumer demand. Rather than forecasting trends and producing goods in the hopes that they will perform, Nishi said on demand is key for a “sell-to-make” shift that could solve the industry’s inventory issues, while also addressing sustainability.

Companies using Shima Seiki’s MACH2XS WHOLEGARMENT flat-bed knitting technology and SDS-ONE APEX Design System can go directly from fiber to final product all in one piece. The WHOLEGARMENT knitting process is designed to eliminate the need for extra raw materials. Instead of requiring fabric to be pieced together by sewers after it is cut, yarns are fed into the machine and the pieces are pre-shaped as they’re knitted. It allows for rapid prototyping and on-demand production without the need for extensive manual post-processes.

With the APEX Design System, Shima Seiki clients can further focus on sustainability by minimizing physical samples. Users would scan their yarn of choice, and simulating them on screen to can create virtual fabrics including circular, woven, flat knit and embroidery simulations. From there, users can import the simulated fabric into the 3D Modelist feature, view the fabrics on a 3D Avatar and have a virtual fitting to check the sizing before even making a sample.

Although knitted masks were not developed to replace N95-grade masks, Shima Seiki masks are knitted with a pocket insert for users to insert their own N95-grade or nonwoven PPE material. The main body of the mask is 100 percent cotton, giving them the ability to go through as many as 20 wash tests before they see any wear and tear. This significantly reduces the number of disposable masks consumers might use over time.

Nishi noted that sustainability has been part of his company’s M.O. since it was founded in 1962, but highlighted that “purposeful production” is a key that makes Shima Seiki’s sustainability strategy truly effective, especially now that production is based entirely on consumer need.

“Purposeful production, or reactive production, are terms that people haven’t really shed light on much, because sustainability is overmarketed and oversaturated,” Nishi said. “This kind of purposeful production makes more sense for us, especially as we see major sportswear companies shifting their production lines and producing masks that are actually being used. With traditional production, you don’t know if [your products are] going to sell through, be left in warehouses or be burnt in landfills. Understanding that your products are being used and have a demand is a huge step toward sustainability moving forward.”

As consumer awareness around sustainability continues to rise, Nishi said interest in on-demand production is having broader appeal.

“We are continuing to expand across various industries to see if we can create more sustainable solutions to reduce waste in the sampling and manufacturing process other than just fashion,” Nishi said. “We create new Shima Samples monthly at our Total Design Center in Wakayama, and we’ve been seeing an increase in demand for sustainable material solutions from automotive, medical and home goods industries.”

Learn more about the WHOLEGARMENT 3D knitting technology and the SDS-ONE APEX Design System, by visiting Shimaseikiusa.com.

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