A Breakaway: Athletic Knit Revolutionizes Jersey Making with Array

Leaning on the various production benefits of additive manufacturing, Athletic Knit is innovating on an integral part of their current jersey production process; the manufacturing of custom name bars, logos, letters, and numbers. These are traditionally made using a laborious, two-stage step sewing process with twill materials. In working with Mosaic at various stages of the production process, Athletic Knit has identified the opportunity to overcome the bottlenecks of that traditional method, while setting the foundations to reap the benefits of increased throughput, durable, fabric-like materials, and reduced costs. 



Mosaic and Athletic Knit

Athletic Knit is an industry-leading manufacturer of premium athletic team uniforms and apparel. Founded in 1962, the company is headquartered in a 150,000 square foot state of the art facility in Toronto, Canada. Athletic Knit (AK for short) is built on a foundation of superior quality, service, and reliability. These values do not just define each member of the AK team, but they are ingrained in the fabric of the company.

When we first began working with AK back in 2017, the teams at Mosaic and AK shared a common vision centered around using the technological advances of additive manufacturing in order to innovate on a more traditional manufacturing process. The key focus of this innovation was to improve production throughput and alleviate pain points in the traditional sewing process, all while maintaining the high-quality jersey product line that AK is known for. Adopting an additive solution to their production process would allow AK to meet an increasing customer demand for more customizable jerseys on a shorter turnaround time. In 2019, AK introduced a fully embedded automated customization and quoting web-tool to provide their customers with that customization. A rapid digital ordering experience is not beneficial if the traditionally-run factory can’t keep up.

A side-effect of all this preliminary research was that by August of 2020, Mosaic had a solution that would check all of AK’s boxes - Array. Mosaic’s Array FFF 3D printing system creates an in-house solution for mass-produced jersey decorations, reduces production costs in the long term, increases throughput and streamlines the production ordering flow process with Canvas.


Athletic Knit’s Conventional Production Process - Embroidered Twill

Although fabric materials make up the base layer of most jerseys, the component with the most variation and customer input are the decorations made from layers of a material called twill. This includes logos, name bars and lettering/numbering on the front, sleeves and rear of the jersey. For logos in particular, these are often unique parts custom made from multiple colours, and multiple finishes of the same material. Each jersey could have up to 7 custom decorations, in any number of colours and materials, thus making the complete process very involved.


  1. Blank jersey sewn to customer spec  
  2. Embroidered twill decoration created using laser cutter + sewing 
  3. Embroidered twill decorations attached to jersey.

Many of these decorations are further customized with distinct regions of differing textures and colors with separate colors requiring sewing to occur in multiple layers. Athletic Knit's current labour intensive process requires both a laser cutter to cut individual layers of mayoral and an operator to Buthen sew these layers together in a precise consistent way.


Jersery logo with several stacked layers of cut fabric and embroidery

It’s from that laborious process that Mosaic and AK sees an area for improvement, not only increasing  the number of decorations made in a single day, but also better meeting customer demand for greater customization without adding risk, workflow complexity or cost.

A Cursory Glance at Array and Printed Twill

Array’s multiple filament printing allows AK to directly reproduce both the colour and embossed aspects of traditional embroidered twill manufacturing. Automation then takes that a step further by replacing the labour of changing sewing machine threads and spools with fully automatic filament changing, making the whole process of material management seamless.


FFF and Array specifically allows AK to produce an equal number or more of these parts well within any deadline. While traditional FFF 3D printers require complicated steps in order to meet the multicolour demands of twill decorations, Array is able to match these demands in a single print. There are also additional considerations that need to be made in order to match the look and feel of traditional embroidered twill decorations, but we’ll get into that further into this report. 

Although adopting FFF would provide important financial and production implications, the goal of maintaining Athletic Knit’s mantra of providing superior quality and durability is ever present. The FFF print would have to rival the traditional embroidered twill decoration in both aesthetic and structural quality. Through working with the Mosaic Solutions’ team, AK and Mosaic were able to hit this high quality bar:  


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

 

Incorporating Array into the AK Workflow 

Mosaic and Athletic Knit identified two critical steps in AK’s current production process as opportunities for throughput improvement. Now our goal is to adapt the production process to incorporate Array in the most efficient manner possible. With that in mind, we have identified a production method using an Array that will remove the bottlenecks while maintaining the key factors of AKs product line: quality and durability.


Array Method

This approach removes a bottleneck created by sewing together the two layers of fabric that form the base of each namebar, and leverages AK’s understanding of the most effective traditional sewing aspects of their workflow. From a cost perspective, saving the sewing step directly results in a reduction of multiple days of labour for AK’s machine operators. These labour hours can then be re-allocated to other steps of the manufacturing process, and address other chokepoints in AK’s overall factory throughput. 

One of the core benefits AK has in using an Array is that the normally time-consuming, layered fabric approach to developing embossed letters, logos and name bars is now a single, fully automated printing process, changing a process involving multiple machines to a single machine. 

Layered logo decorations printed in multiple colours on an Array

The previously highlighted layers are created by making the typical micro adjustments to the printhead and the various colour requirements met with Array’s automatic filament changing. This also keeps the door open for greater flexibility in manufacturing and product customization. 

Working with FFF Materials

Although plastics are the first thing that comes to mind when considering FFF, the Mosaic Solutions team is working hand-in-hand with the AK production team, and several material development partners in order to print, prototype, and test a wide variety of materials and find the ideal solution. One of the biggest challenges in using FFF materials is being able to recreate the look and feel of traditional twill, as FFF materials typically have a high sheen and visible layer lines that AK considered a major detractor for the end user experience. 


For a digital printing process to be used in place of embroidery, there are many part requirements that need to be achieved:


1) Cost - If the end part cost is too expensive, it would not be viable for adoption at scale. Hitting this requirement comes down to identifying an affordable material that hits the end part requirements, and is able to print parts quickly and in a material efficient manner. 

2) Color - Mosaic solutions and AK, working together, now have a selection of 18 core materials that can be used, with up to 8 materials per part. This multi-color aspect is unique to Mosaic, as Mosaic’s team leverages their Palette X technology to accomplish multi-color output without operation intervention

3) Cosmetics - The premium nature of this part goes hand and hand with the textured embroidery feel. Getting a printed part to look and feel like fabric was a major challenge that the teams were able to overcome through developing a custom material as well as with extensive testing and software toolpathing optimizations.

4) Sewability - Mosaic Solutions and Athletic Knit needed the end part to be sewn to a jersey, which means the teams needed to develop a specific geometry to overcome the material stresses created from sewing

5) Repeatability - When manufacturing hundreds of parts on several printers within Array consistency between each is a core requirement. If AK was printing 100 parts on Array, all 100 parts need to come off looking the same regardless of which printer created them.

6) Inner part adhesion - Letters need to stick to the substrate as though they were sewn. If letters began peeling or falling off that would cause significant support issues and replacement costs for AK. 

7) In-service durability - The printed parts and final product need to endure hundreds of washer and dryer tests to ensure no degradation of the components or end product.

Right off the break, Mosaic and AK determined that PLA was poorly suited to this particular application due to its rigidity - as with most garments, jerseys should be as flexible as possible. With that in mind, variations of the common flexible materials like TPE offer a matte texture that more closely resembles twill. However, TPE came with a major trade off - It lacks durability.

TPE is prone to scratching and whitening over time. Not only would this be a factor when washing the jersey, but given the high stress, high contact nature of hockey, customers would likely see their logos and name bars quickly damaged after a single game. 

TPU, a flexible sibling of TPE, overcomes the issue of durability, but it’s tendency to display visible tool marks and a plastic-like sheen make it a poor fit for this application.

Mosaic and Athletic unanimously agreed that materials available for printing today are not  well suited for  the cosmetic needs of jersey decorations

Introducing Mosaic E-Twill Filament

The Mosaic Solutions team engaged our materials development partners to formulate a flexible material  specifically to have a fabric like texture and appearance. After testing a variety of families of polymers, a material was selected that has the required properties. This material provides the flexibility of most other materials in its family, high colour quality and no-shine finish that closely resembles the look and feel of fabric. It presents a unique thread-like durability, and appearance that if stretched and bent in specific ways, make it ideal to supplant twill fabric. In optimizing the production process of this material, we are able to achieve parity where for the first time, experts at AK look directly  at the printed twill parts and consider them confusingly similar to the traditional. This similarity meant that the Mosaic Solutions and AK teams had overcome one of the most challenging aspects of this project. Output part quality from a 3D printer was able to hit their required specifications.

 

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

Initial test prints in this material also presented a factor for consideration. Adjusting print parameters like infill and extrusion depth can change the thickness of the layer lines and adjust the level of sheen. AK prefers this matte configuration, but it’s important to note that in working with the materials beyond high level parameters, there is still an option for additional fine tuning. 

With our own lineup of FFF materials, Mosaic is working closely with AK to fine tune Mosaic E-Twill and the various software parameters that might overall output quality with Canvas.

Mosaic E-Twill is not yet available for sale to the public, if you have an application and are interested in discussing the use of E-twill, please contact us at solutions@mosaicmfg.com.


Cost Savings and Throughput increase with Array

Athletic Knit and the Mosaic Solutions team worked together on a feasibility study to determine what the results of implementing Array in AK’s manufacturing process would be. This implementation is currently set to begin later this year, a summary of the results of the study is laid out below for reference.

Comparing Array With Traditional Workflows

When looking at the tangible benefits of incorporating Array into the AK workflow, we can see that not only does it reduce operator load and labour hours required, it lowers the cost per part and massively improves the overall throughput of the traditional embroidered twill production process. 


By investing in automated equipment like Array and removing their Multi-layer sewing bottleneck, AK has the potential to reduce the number of required operators for this part of their manufacturing process by nearly half. This frees up workforce resources and would allow these workers to focus on other tasks within the AK’s operation, effectively creating an additional means of increasing production throughput.

This brings AK’s total cost per part down by between 30%-50%.

Reducing Bottlenecked Labour Hours

Although we have already highlighted the production benefits of using Array within their workflow, a more in-depth look at how the new method compares to the traditional one on a numbers basis, helps underscore the benefit AK sees in increasing throughput and reducing labour hours and costs. 

The traditional process requires a number of operators working multiple days and a sizable chunk of their daily labour hours in order to generate AK’s required throughput. The vast majority  of these labour hours are in the previously highlighted bottlenecks of AI Sewing/Laser Cutting and the final Sewing Machine Step. 

Increasing Production Throughput

One of the greatest changes Array brings to the AK workflow is its ability to run autonomously without any operator interaction. Unlike their sewing machine, which requires constant monitoring from an operator and cannot run on weekends or in the evenings, Array is self-sufficient and can run continuously for all 7 days of the week. And while daily production output remains the same, those two extra days of operation translate directly to an output of millions of decorations, and subsequently, thousands of additional jerseys, when compared to the old process.

In terms of production numbers, this is a 60% increase in throughput. 

Project Management with Canvas

Based on Mosaic’s core Canvas software, Canvas Array streamlines the file preparation process from customer order to production on the factory floor. This easy to use solution allows AK’s customers to design custom jerseys through their website customizer and automatically translate this to a file suitable for Array to produce. Canvas Array also provides a robust print queuing platform that allows AK to manage anywhere from one, to hundreds of print jobs, scaling to the workflow demand as needed. 

 

Canvas Array’s remote management of  Array means operators don’t necessarily need to be onsite to get a job started. This not only rounds out the entire value proposition of Array, but gives both AK and their customers a layer of flexibility and usability that speeds up the entire jersey ordering process and could have a number of additional uses in other production systems.

 

Canvas Array simplifies project management to make the most of the AK workforce

Looking at the Future

Currently, AK is in line to begin on site scaling and testing before expanding to full jersey production in 2022. While Athletic Knit sees Array as a means to modernize their supply chain in the immediate future, they also recognize that Array’s longer term production advantages mean they could expand the application beyond just the smaller logos on jerseys and product larger panels or even offer new products specifically built around these newfound advantages, by the year 2025. 

Scalable production capacity on that same initial investment means Athletic Knit can not only grow their workflow with their machines, they can also replace offshore bulk order components with those produced in-house. This re-shoring and shift to digital manufacturing will give greater flexibility in their manufacturing processes.

Interested in learning how Array can modernize your supply chain, helping cut costs and improve throughput? Drop us a line at solutions@mosaicmfg.com to get in touch with our Applications Engineering team, or fill in the form using the 'Inquire' button below: 

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