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Laser textile joining puts stitching in the shade - new Wales project

Connect, no. 146, January/February 2007, p.1

Laser textile joining puts stitching in the shade

The world of textiles joining, particularly traditional stitching, looks likely to be turned on its head if a recent collaboration between TWI and a South Wales textiles college continues at its present pace.

TWI has joined forces with Coleg Sir Gar to develop alternative joining methods for garment manufacture. The project is funded by the Knowledge exploitation Fund, European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund and has involved design, construction and commissioning of a unique textile welding machine which includes three thermal joining techniques; transmission laser welding, direct laser welding, and ultrasonic welding.

TWI pioneered the laser welding of fabrics in the late nineties. It was developed hand-in-hand with Clearweld® , a clear laser joining method for plastics marketed by Gentex, and now successfully used in production of high integrity products.

Original work using Clearweld concentrated on garment joining applications, making traditional stitching in products like gloves, fleeces, jackets and shirts, a thing of the past. Since those early days the process has been adopted for making airbags, inflatable buildings and foam-backed upholstery products.

The attractions of laser welded textiles are many fold; the external texture and appearance is retained, strong air and water proof seams can be made quickly and effectively, production is fast and almost fume free and the colour of the parent material is unaffected by welding. There is also great flexibility for automation, and multiple layers can be welded in one pass.

On the downside; some fabrics need to be pre-coated with the absorber, production involves investing in new equipment, and repair and re-work can be difficult.

Coleg Sir Gar is now working with TWI to offer training courses in the latest design and manufacturing methods for companies making textile products including CAD/CAM techniques and textiles welding methods. The courses will be piloted in 2007 and will be generally available from the beginning of 2008.

The future of textiles manufacture may well include automated stitching machines with robots for picking, handling and seaming fabrics for garments-making, as is being developed in the European Leapfrog project. Ultimately automated laser seaming is expected to become important for outerwear and other areas particularly where sealed seams are required. TWI is heading these developments through management of the European ALTEX project which is developing textiles and equipment for laser welding.

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