The more progressive players in the apparel sector care about traceability. Buoyed and encouraged by a new, more informed and interested consumer, keen to know how and where their clothes are made, more companies are experimenting with QR code technology, barcodes and RFID tags to try to communicate the supply chain journey of their goods.
As with any such system, there is plenty of room for ‘gaming’ with companies at the mercy of supplier integrity, or otherwise.
But imagine a system whereby the device that communicates the origin of a given garment is actually the garment itself, rather than something attached to or embedded within? Well, imagine no more.
Scientists at the University of Borås in Sweden want to make apparel even more transparent by way of a coded yarn-based tracking system. Their concept features so-called ‘intelligent yarns’ that are fully integrated into the textiles at the manufacturing stage, producing traceability tags. Containing special optical features, the yarns themselves act as an ‘optical stamp’ for traceability right across the surface of a woven or knitted fabric. A combination of coded yarns – or patterns – is used to create unique tags that can be used to more fully trace the origins and journey of a piece of clothing or product. The coded yarns can be generated on a hollow spindle frame, and can be designed so that each one is unique.
And according to the researchers, the yarns could work in much the same way as a barcode, with lines of code in various lengths and widths, and with different spacing, representing digits, while a set of lines makes up the full code. The full code can then be altered simply by changing the coded yarns’ sequence in the textile.
“Barcodes and RFIDs possess low security against copying and reproduction, which means an identical tag can easily be reproduced and placed with a counterfeit product,” write the team, led by Vijay Kumar, in an article published in the Journal of Manufacturing Systems. “The tracking tags are removed at the point of sale (POS). Therefore, it becomes difficult to trace back the history of a textile product after POS.”
Crucially, because the tags would be integrated into the textile, they cannot be removed. And that is good news because traceability is extended beyond POS, and they could also play a key role in encouraging the recycling and return of apparel items too. “Since the reproduction of these tags is not easy like other tags, including barcodes and RFIDs, they can provide enhanced security to textile products from counterfeits,” adds the paper.
Also, from an economic point of view, yarn-based tags are normal textile, therefore there is no need for any special material components – and the production can be done in-house, rather than outsourced to a third party.
So, are we likely to see this new technology adopted any time soon? Well, the scientists have been putting the tags through their paces in real-world settings, using harsh washing treatments to make sure they stand up like a barcode would, as well as using a decoding algorithm to extract information encoded within the tags. With some fine-tuning and refinement (including, for example, the use of fixed identification marks for direct reading and decoding), the team believes its yarn code system has the potential to become an effective traceability technology of the future.