Software to preserve scarce skills of knitwear craftsmen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am

A software program being developed by the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) will help the knitwear industry make better use of the scarce skills of its most experienced craftsmen.

It will do this through the production of knitting machine instructions and automating part of the production of customer samples.

Hong Kong's knitwear producers lead the world but recent industry developments have created problems.

Most of the production has been moved to China and other Southeast Asian countries so local knitwear companies focus mainly on order-taking, sample preparation, materials procurement and quality control.

Another trend has been the decrease in production batch sizes, which means that for every production order obtained, as many as 40 sample garments may have to be produced for prospective customers.

The production of knitting instructions for sample garments has traditionally been carried out by craftsmen whose skills were developed by experience rather than formal education, and who are now scarce.

As a result, the production of customer samples has become a bottleneck in the expansion of the local knitwear industry.

In 1994, to help the local industry tackle this problem, the HKPC was commissioned by the Industry and Technology Development Council (ITDC) to develop a PC-based computer aided design (CAD) system to prepare knitting instructions for garments and manage materials utilisation for designs.

The project was supported by two industrial associations - the Hong Kong Knitwear Exporters and Manufacturers Association and the Hong Kong Woollen and Synthetics Knitting Manufacturers' Association.

The software runs under Microsoft Chinese Windows on an industry-standard PC and will eventually be available in both traditional and simplified characters.

The software incorporates three databases. Orders are supported by a database of standard design templates, in which garments are classified according to the design of the neck, the front opening and the shoulder. In addition, 15 key dimensions are entered.

Another database is the order history record, which provides a reference of knitting density built up from similar past orders. A third database provides knitting densities, and includes information about the type of stitch, the yarn type and count, and the machine gauge. This is used as a reference for planning new sample designs.

The customer may specify the weight of the garment, and to achieve this craftsmen traditionally knitted a test panel and subjected it to a stretch test requiring a high level of skill and experience.

'The information stored in the system database will eventually enable a less skilled person to meet client requirements for tension and garment weight,' K T Yung, general manager of HKPC's computer services division, said.

The most important output of the program is a knitting instruction worksheet, which shows the panels of the garment in outline, and indicates the numbers of rows, or courses of stitches, and how these are increased or reduced to produce the desired shape.

The knitting instructions are in the standard industry format developed in Hong Kong over the past 30 years. The software enables the user to edit the knitting instructions, for example, to add those for non-standard design features.

The software will also calculate the knitting instructions for multi-coloured patterns. Such patterns are usually designed on a CAD system and supplied by the customer in an industry-standard PCX format graphics file.

The patterns can be edited to alter size, position, shape and colour. A grid shows the position of stitches on the pattern and this can be edited stitch by stitch.

The system can also estimate the amount of material used for each design, and print out a yarn consumption report, indicating the quantity of material used.

Another advantage of the new software is that it can record and standardise knitwear industry terminology and expertise.

'As the knitwear craftsmen retire and are not replaced, the knowledge accumulated over the last 30 years or so may disappear with them,' Mr Yung said. 'That is why it is important to retain their expertise in this software, which has some of the characteristics of an expert system.' Using conventional manual methods, skilled craftsmen can produce knitting instructions for a garment design in about half a day.

HKPC's program allows knitting instructions to be produced automatically as soon as the data has been entered, usually about 20 minutes.

'Typically, buyers visit Hong Kong for a few days only, so if they ask for samples, it is a commercial advantage to supply them very quickly, while the buyer is still in the territory,' Mr Yung said.

'It is expected that the HKPC software will be widely adopted. The two trade associations which have supported the project have a joint membership of 300 firms.

'The size of the whole industry is about 1,000 companies. Hong Kong companies now own manufacturing facilities in China and in South-East Asia, and the standardisation of industry knowledge will benefit production over the region.'