Interview with Dr. Masahiro Shima

Dr. Masahiro Shima
Dr. Masahiro Shima
President and CEO
Shima Seiki Mfg., Ltd.
Shima Seiki Mfg., Ltd.

Masahiro Shima is the Founder, President and CEO of Shima Seiki Mfg., Ltd. of Japan, the world’s lea

Why do you call your company a Mechatronics R&D company?

In reality, Shima Seiki is a manufacturer as well as a sales and service company of industrial knitting machines. Our mission statement however is to provide advanced technology at a reasonable price, and to that end we constantly strive to be at the cutting edge of computerized knitting technology. Shima Seiki was founded on world's-first technology, and we have maintained our success by remaining at the forefront of knitting technology. We are therefore first and foremost a research and development firm. Mechatronics refers to the mechanical and electronics technology that are involved in flat knitting machine development.

What strides has Shima Seiki taken in the field of CAD/CAM?

Indeed, Shima Seiki applies its mechatronics skills to develop equipment other than knitting machines. Our CAD/CAM system is one example, and these systems have seen great progress in the field of patterning and cutting of all types of fabrics. In addition to our multi-ply P-CAM® cutting systems engineered to cut fabric layers up to 2 inches for mass-production, our strength is especially seen in ultra-fast single-ply cutting for order-made suits and dresses as well as sample-making applications. This on-demand production is supported by our PGM software on our SDS®-ONE(P) apparel CAD system. Comprehensive patternmaking, grading and marking software offer automated functions for unmanned operation and realtime processing for quick turnaround and minimized leadtimes. Pattern-matching functions can also arrange pattern layouts so that designs can continue across the garment without interruption. This can also be performed in coordination with our SIP-series inkjet printer to assure matched patterns. All the experience and know-how accumulated through development of professional-grade patterning is in turn applied to our knitting machine side of the business, where accurate patterning is crucial to precision knitting.

What kind of work environment do you provide to your employees?

Our employees are our most valuable resource, and we provide the best work environment we possibly can. Being a manufacturer, safety is our biggest concern, and our injury rate is extremely low. In addition to regulated health and safety inspections, we have our own in-house health and safety commission that promotes employee awareness toward their own work environment. Other factors such as air conditioning, lighting and noise are all evaluated and maintained within comfortable levels. Employee morale is another important issue, and to that end we have an employee fellowship group that organizes athletic events and company trips, funded by the company. We also feature various facilities on our premises, such as a 50 meter swimming pool, tennis court and a park that can be used on the weekends by employees and their families.

WHOLEGARMENT® machines have been your mainstay. How different are whole garment machines in terms of technology and operational ease?

"As anyone can imagine, WHOLEGARMENT® knitting involves much more complicated techniques as compared with conventional knitting. Knitting machines likewise require much more complex mechatronics that are unique to WHOLEGARMENT® machines. For example, true WHOLEGARMENT® capability requires the use of four needle beds, instead of the usual two. We also determined that in order to take advantage of WHOLEGARMENT® we even had to re-engineer the most basic component of knitting—the needle. So our high-end WHOLEGARMENT® machines feature, instead of conventional latch needles, our newly developed SlideNeedles™ which offer a vast increase in knitting technique as well as more consistent, higher quality knit fabrics. Quality and consistency are also crucial to WHOLEGARMENT® production. To that end, our DSCS® Digital Stitch Control System provides precision control over loop length to allow for precision pattern-based knitting and 3-D shaping crucial to WHOLEGARMENT® production. DSCS® also provides product consistency job-to-job as well. As you can see we are very committed to the advancement of WHOLEGARMENT® knitting. Our company is unique in that respect as a knitting machine manufacturer. We believe that WHOLEGARMENT® will soon become the mainstream knitting method for consumer-oriented markets, and we have the responsibility to continue with research and development in this field. At the same time we realize that the complexities associated with these advancements tend to overwhelm the user. If the user can't keep up, what good is the technology? So we've made operation simpler, with more automated functions. The key to this operator support is our SDS®-ONE design system. This system features user-friendly realtime processing of specialized functions developed specifically for knit design and programming. It features a vast database of yarns, knit parts, structures, patterns and designs to choose from. Designs can be scanned in or drawn on the screen and those are automatically converted to loops and then machine programming data. SDS®-ONE allows anyone, beginners and professionals alike, to take full advantage of WHOLEGARMENT® technology. In fact, our own first-year employees at Shima Seiki can already begin producing professional-looking WHOLEGARMENT® knitwear at a very efficient pace in only a few short months."

Do you feel that your company move to introduce whole garment machinery will gain European markets?

Definitely! Originally, WHOLEGARMENT® knitting technology was developed as a "last resort" in our effort to counter the onslaught of cheap Chinese imports and keep knit production within the Japanese market. The same situation is happening in most other consumer-oriented markets, especially in the U.S. and England, which is a shame because that is where knit manufacturing historically began and now the industry has all but collapsed. Even the Italian market which has been resistant to imports is in danger. These markets we believe are prime targets for WHOLEGARMENT®, benefiting most from the new technology. As a matter of fact, when you consider that WHOLEGARMENT® can liberate the industry from costly labour-intensive post-processes and at the same time offer enough design appeal for consumers to choose design over price, some may find that WHOLEGARMENT® offers an ideal solution for survival for some markets.

What are gaugeless knits and their applications?

"Gauge" is the unit assigned to the number of needles per inch. Fine gauge knits with 12 needles in an inch are 12G, and conversely coarse gauge knits with only 5 needles per inch are 5G. Typically, a given garment can only be knit in one type of gauge because a machine is fixed with only one type of needle. Manufacturers, including Shima Seiki, will often offer a "gauge conversion" kit that allows the user to exchange needles and convert the machine into a different gauge, thereby expanding the capability of the machine. Gaugeless knitting refers to the capability of our machines to change gauges without this complex, time-consuming task of gauge conversion. Furthermore, gaugeless knitting can produce knitwear featuring an assortment of gauge sizes "on-the-fly" in a single garment. Gaugeless knitting allows the freedom to handle changing seasons and shifting trends. Product variety is also increased by achieving interesting textures and sophisticated visual patterning effects.

Could you give us a run-down of your company history?

shima Seiki was founded in 1962 with the goal of developing a fully automated seamless glove knitting machine. After success with that machine we eventually expanded our business to include flat knitting machines, beginning with automated collar knitting machines. The Computer Age brought about a whole new era for Shima Seiki. Our decision to commit to computerization in our mainstream products is what set us apart from the competition. Whereas most of the older and more experienced knitting machine manufacturers were merely experimenting with computerization in knitting machine mechanics, we were already pursuing computer-aided knit design and programming. Although a relative newcomer to the flat knitting machine business, that approach to adopting innovation in mainstream production is what gave us a huge lead in technology, both in attitude and aptitude. Since then we have been at the forefront of flat knitting technology, leading the industry with innovations to help adapt to small-lot, multiple-variety flexible production to support changing seasons and trends. Digital stitch control, 3-D shaping, integral knitting and now WHOLEGARMENT® are all innovations which were pioneered by Shima Seiki.

Could you explain the concept of Factory Boutique?

The Factory Boutique is, as its name suggests, a knit garment factory and fashion boutique in one. With WHOLEGARMENT® knitting that allows an entire garment to be produced on the machine with no post-knitting process, knitwear can be produced in as little as 30 minutes. While other finishing processes are required before the customer can actually take the garment home, it is nevertheless possible to produce a finished garment within a day. Also because garments can be produced one at a time, there is no need to wait for all necessary parts to be knit before a single garment can be produced. So true on-demand production is possible. Combine all that with the realtime design and programming capability of SDS®-ONE, and you have a business formula in which it is actually possible to sit the customer down with you to design a knitted garment to his or her liking. Such custom-made one-of-a-kind garments can be designed and programmed in-house at the boutique side, and the data transferred to the factory side for production. We have such a setup here in Wakayama, called Factory Boutique Shima, and it is doing very well.

What markets do you currently cater to and where do you foresee new markets emerging soon?

In the past few years the flat knitting market worldwide has shown a dichotomy, with advanced consumer-oriented markets trying to survive the onslaught of imports from export-oriented countries with cheap labour, represented by China. We cater to both markets, with conventional cut-and-sew and shaping production equipment sold to export-oriented countries, and more advanced technologies such as integral and WHOLEGARMENT® knitting equipment sold to consumer-oriented markets, represented by Japan, the United States and the EU. WHOLEGARMENT® machines are especially important in those markets which are already losing ground to imports, such as the U.S., England and Japan, where survival of a knitting base is of utmost importance and new technology offers the only key to survival. There are also emerging markets that were formerly export-oriented countries but are now rapidly adopting fashion-conscious design for domestic consumption, such as Turkey and India. WHOLEGARMENT® knitting technology is being introduced in these countries as well. We also cater to all other parts of the world, including Latin and South America, Central and Eastern Europe, Far-East and Southeast Asia, Oceania and parts of Africa, with official representatives present in over 70 nations worldwide.

Are the Chinese offering stiff challenge and from on front?

"about it, but it is still lacking in product conceptualization as well as research and development capabilities. There are many small companies leeching off the success of our knitting machines, and they are each offering their own copies of our products. We could pursue copyright and patent infringement cases with these companies, but really, there are too many of them, and we do not wish to bleed out cash in doing so. Instead we will continue to offer technology beyond the reach of these companies, and at the same time strive to lower our costs to bring prices down to competitive levels. At the same time it is very important to keep this much in mind: If we stop new development at any point, the Chinese will catch up and eat us alive. This is true of any industry; not just knitting machinery. Another possible scenario is for Chinese companies to become large enough to afford buyouts of existing competition to absorb their R&D strengths. So we have to stay on out toes and continue with our innovations, and let the Chinese try to play catch-up. It is only a matter of time before the Chinese will have an R&D base. By that time, we must be far enough ahead to remain competitive despite the price difference in our products. In other words, we must already begin treating them as true competition rather than brush them off as mere copy-cats."

How do you face competition in Europe and how do you overcome it?

Europe has become such a small, specialized market that there really isn't the kind of direct competition in Europe as there once was. For us, Europe means WHOLEGARMENT® machines for key consumer markets that are still struggling to survive. For our direct competitor, which happens to be a European company, it is second-hand machines in Central and Eastern European markets. Ironically, our European competitors are actually competing with us in the developing markets like China. We are emphasizing technology, and they are pushing low pricing and second-hand equipment. We will continue to provide cutting-edge technology suited to each market, emphasizing the importance of new technology while at the same time lower our costs to bring prices down to competitive levels.

What are product tags and their applications?

"WHOLEGARMENT® product tags are a project we embarked on several years ago when our customers began voicing the fact that although WHOLEGARMENT® was revolutionary technology, it was difficult for the consumer to notice that technology. So we developed WHOLEGARMENT® tags and made them available globally, not only to identify and explain WHOLEGARMENT® knitwear, but to establish the WHOLEGARMENT® brand and educate the consumer to its benefits so that our customers' products could be recognized as having the same added value and quality as other WHOLEGARMENT® products available throughout the world. We provide WHOLEGARMENT® tags at cost. We sell an average of 800,000 tags per year, and already there have been close to 3 million tags sold worldwide. With WHOLEGARMENT® tags we hope to someday establish the WHOLEGARMENT® trademark brand with as much recognition as, say, the Woolmark."
Published on: 29/05/2006

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of

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