Exclusive: Shima Seiki on tapping China, & ‘WHOLEGARMENT’ not getting its due aims to solidify its China market

by Nitish Varshney

15-January-2019  |  13 mins read

Shima Seiki
Masahiro Shima (C), Founder and Chairman of Shima Seiki; along with Ikuto Umeda (R), Executive Director & Senior Director, Sales Headquarters and Tadanori Ueno (L), Manager, Knitting Machine Sales Section, Joint Sales Division of Shima Seiki

Rising fashion consciousness among the young generation, increasing online shopping craze and inclination of consumers towards showing individualities to stand out among the rest, are key factors that have changed supply chain requirements, with growing interest in on-demand production, both in terms of time-compression and mass-customisation.

And talking about the changing trend, China is no exception. Growing demand for customised clothing within its borders indicates the country can be a major market for the technology suppliers in the segment. Sensing this need, Japan-based knitting technology juggernaut Shima Seiki has already started strengthening its foothold in China within the last few years with its unmatchable technology and, to further expand in the country, the company recently showed up at ITMA Asia exhibition that was held in Shanghai, China in October 2018. Below are some excerpts of Team Apparel Resources’ exclusive conversation with Ikuto Umeda, Executive Director & Senior Director, Sales Headquarters, Shima Seiki.

AR: What according to you are the core factors that make Shima Seiki a leader in its category (flat knitting) and different from other manufacturers with similar technologies (seamless and flat knitting machines)?

Umeda: We have 56 years of experience in knitting technology and the trust of customers is what we have gained all through these years. Our success can be attributed to some other significant factors as well and one of them is that we have been able to assist apparel and textile manufacturers in producing their products at a quick rate with no waste. Further, apart from ecological aspect, we always have something distinct to offer, therefore, we have been untouched by the brands who counterfeit to sell their products in the local market. Our products meet all the three criteria that help manufacturers improve production: they are quick; accurate and economical and that is what makes us different from others.

AR: Your recent developments in China indicate that Shima Seiki is aiming to enlarge its footprints in the country. How do you see China as a market for your products?

Umeda: There is a broader way of looking at it. China used to be the preferred place for buyers in the apparel segment from all across the world until a few years ago. However, its major advantage, the cheap labour, that China had earlier, has now vanished because the labour cost in the country has skyrocketed with time. This rise in cost further resulted in rise in the living standard of the Chinese people and that is what has created a sense of individualism in them. Their spending on apparel is increasing, they want more customised garments to stand out among the rest, thus the domestic retail market in this segment is bolstering the growth in China. But, the fact is that the domestic market here is so huge that China’s production industry cannot handle such large volume anymore using traditional and conventional ways. This is exactly what we are aiming to capitalise on with our WHOLEGARMENT machine which is a proven technology for mass customisation. That’s why we have opened a technology centre in this country to further innovate our machines according to the Chinese consumers’ need and to bring down the cost of our machines.

We term this emergence as ‘on-demand’ customisation. The idea of offering short-run manufacturing i.e. ‘on demand’, has been around for quite some time. It’s appealing as the customers get exactly what they need, exactly when they need it. For manufacturers, this means less inventory to maintain and reduced downtime of the machine. The concept is being adopted by the Asian countries as well because, with time evolution, Asian countries are becoming more westernised.

On-demand market is surely on our list. Still, I would say, our products are suited to cater to not just this concept rather, as I had said earlier, we provide a complete system that is suitable to both on-demand and mass customisation.

AR: Everyone is talking about Industry 4.0, but no considerable development of this concept can be seen in the apparel industry as of now. What is your take on this?

Umeda: Frankly speaking, Industry 4.0 is still a buzzword. The apparel industry, as a whole, is not actually ready to adopt this concept right now though it’s a fact that some progressive companies are keen to find out information related to Industry 4.0, study it for quite some time and then implement it according to their requirement, may be in near future.

For example, virtual sampling is one of the applications of 4.0 concept but the industry is still unsure, rather confused, if 3D sampling process actually works. Most of the manufacturers in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam consider that there is no need to make even one physical sample but this is a misconception. One physical sample has to be made after checking fall, fit and measurements on virtual model. Virtual sampling is effectively possible and it comes along with significant benefits such as there is system in place where sustainability is given more focus to reduce wastage of fabric, saving enormous time in sample approving process. Moreover, traceability and transparency have become important for end customers nowadays and have increased demand for cleaner, more efficient and more environmentally stable production. Compelled with customers’ growing demand, sooner or later, the industry has to adopt such solutions that will certainly boost Industry 4.0 concept.

As far as our efforts are concerned, we are trying to educate and convince the industry on this. We understand that a manufacturer is, most of the times, suppressed by the buyers’ demand and that’s why, taking a step further, we have started collaborating with retail brands directly. Fast-fashion company Uniqlo is our largest partner. Our Innovation Factory was opened two years back in Japan in association with Uniqlo to meet the demand in the Japanese market. Others have also adopted our virtual sampling system and they are even further suggesting their suppliers to use the same design system so that they can increase profit margins due to a drastic reduction in miscellany of communication which occurs due to traditional approach. We are thus creating an environment that is increasing awareness of the industry towards Virtual Sampling.

AR: Which country/region is the best market today for Shima machines and why?

Umeda: Obviously we are a leader in developed nations like USA and the countries in Europe because they are far ahead than Asian countries in accepting the new technologies. However, we have successfully been able to capture big markets in Asia such as China, India and Bangladesh. These countries were reluctant to invest in automation and kept relying on conventional methods until a few years ago but that’s not the situation any more. The technology trend is emerging in these countries as they have started searching for new opportunities and new ways to transform their manufacturing.

Moreover, China has provided a great infrastructure to its textile firms within the last few years. On the other hand, in India, there is a huge cotton industry and well-developed infrastructure for textile production. Spinners in these countries are gradually opting for knitting. So, a big potential exists for us.

Our future strategy includes finding out opportunities in south-east Asia too. Since the retail market is growing in these countries and the retailers are the ones who hold the right for decision making, we can see growth.

AR: Do you think that your benchmark product WHOLEGARMENT has not been able to get its due place despite the fact that fast fashion and customisation are the new mantras for success in the fashion industry?

Umeda: WHOLEGARMENT has been around for almost 23 years and, over the years, it did not get due recognition. We were facing this situation until a couple of years ago. Now we actually can’t even supply enough WHOLEGARMENT machines due to more demand in the market. It’s a fact that domestic demand for customised clothing in China, due to huge population, exceeds the overall demand in US, EU, Japan and Russia put together. However, as I said earlier, due to rising wages, enterprises are using more Industry 4.0 solutions now and that’s a win-win situation for us.

AR: Off late, the company has also been aggressively promoting other technologies like spreading machine, shoe upper machine and design software… how has the industry reacted to these relatively new offerings from Shima Seiki and what are the new developments you are working on?

Umeda: The reaction has been overwhelming. It takes years to research and create a new product and we have been able to provide the exact solutions to the market. As a machine manufacturer and technology provider, we need to distinct ourselves from the other manufacturers and our products stamp on this fact. We have developed SVR123SP machine with a loop presser, which comes studded with hybrid technology and allows manufacturers to obtain ‘weaving and knitting’ combination. This product is a winner in the industry.

Lately, we have also started a ‘Digital Yarn Project’. It’s important to focus on how a garment is produced and what really matters is the feel and texture of the fabric. For that to happen, the yarn and its functionality is the key. There is an important connection between the retailer and the supplier of yarns and we have created a forum with the help of this project. The project aims to digitise yarn with the cooperation of spinning companies so that its customers can select yarn for their design and produce simulations for digital sampling, while programming data allows the required amount of yarn to be calculated so that the yarn can be ordered as soon as approval is obtained for that design. This is the first time we have collaborated with yarn suppliers and we are hopeful the industry will welcome this initiative.

Furthermore, we are working to develop wearable tech-based products, not just in garments but in automotive interior too. This is one revolutionary project of ours’ which will make automotive interior ‘smart’. We will surely update the industry when it comes out of its experimental phase.

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