The technological advancements of the last century have changed the face of the textile industry forever. With instantaneous worldwide communication now possible, the industry has been able to speed up almost every part of the supply chain, from production through to final point of sale.
Yet for many companies, particularly those in the UK, one vital part of the production process continues to be performed in a most archaic, impractical and costly way possible: colour development and control.
Stuck in the past?
The commonly accepted system is to use coloured swatches for everything, both in the design phase and later, when production needs to be checked. But this method can be time wasting, expensive and unreliable.
Malcolm Ball is the director of Malcolm Ball Associates, a UK consultancy company that specialises in colour control management. He told director-e: "If you take into account the time and effort taken to produce, pack and dispatch the swatches, add to that the shipping costs and the management time taken waiting for them to arrive and be inspected, you can see how much money is being wasted.
"When you add up these costs, you realise that companies are paying as much as $30 every time someone has to look at a physical colour sample - and if the swatch is wrong in some way, which may be two or three times per colour - you've got to go through it all again with new samples.
"Additionally, even if the swatches used for standards start off perfect, they don't remain that way - the colours can change through poor storage, exposure to light and handling. Of course, when your control sample changes, there's no way to maintain the colour quality and consistency of your garments."
But the problems aren't just logistical; there's also the fact that physical samples totally rely on the keen eye of the tester - and even trained testers can make mistakes if they're examining the control swatch in non-standard environment or inspection cabinet.
Stepping into the future
So what is the alternative? Unsurprisingly, it's technological: spectrophotometers can be used to analyse the exact colour of a fabric sample, then turn it into a digital reading that can be sent across the world via the internet in a matter of minutes.
For the designers, this is a godsend - previously, every time they rejected a proposed colour sample, they would have to wait days or weeks for another one to be made and sent; with this technology they can tweak and twist the colours as much as they like without extending the design process unnecessarily.
Of course, they will still want a physical sample towards the end of the process, to make sure that the final fabric is perfect, but the computerised system will still have cut away weeks of fruitless time wasting.
For factories, meanwhile, a computerised reference gives them a guide that will never deteriorate or change, so that the first garment to be produced should always be as accurate as the last.
Some software systems also offer the option to produce a 'colour decision profile', which can be used to automatically throw out any dyeings that veer too far from the optimum shade of colour and automatically accept ones that fall within fine preset limits, avoiding the need for a trained colour tester to examine material that would be an automatic fail or a perfect match.
Naturally, the buyer must still make a decision on the colours in-between, but objective information is available, and valuable time has still been saved during the rest of the process.
The digital information is also easy to automatically catalogue and file with the right enterprise resource plan (ERP), meaning that a permanent history of samples and batch records can be built up and maintained with little effort.
A history of holding back
But despite all of these advantages, many companies continue to use just the outdated physical system, or use spectrophotometers without linking the data to a computer network. Why is this?
In the UK, at least, part of the reason is historical. Malcolm explained: "When these new communication systems were first introduced, I think the technology was, in some ways, more advanced than people required.
"There were already elements of instrumental colour control in place, so the new systems didn't seem like such a big step, whereas in the US and Far East, where there was less 'history', it was a new thing altogether. It took off there much more successfully, so the UK has lagged behind in this respect."
Another issue was a failure to clearly see how much money could be saved. Since the exorbitant costs of using the traditional method are broken down into a series of individual outgoing payments (supplier postage and packaging, courier delivery, wages for staff dealing with samples etc.), they become lost in the system.
This meant that while the costs of doing business the old way could far outstrip the outlay for spectrophotometers and ERP systems, businesses were unable to see just how much they could benefit from the new technology.
Of course, this bad history has bled into modern-day businesses thinking, where spectrophotometers are viewed with some suspicion - can a machine do a better job than a trained colour tester?
The simple answer is that so long as the machine is maintained regularly, it can. In fact, spectrophotometers give a more accurate and consistent analysis of colour than even an expert tester working in scientifically controlled lighting could.
After all, machines are not subject to the thousands of distractions and factors that can affect a human's perception of the world, meaning that spectrophotometers are as close to an objective analyst as we are ever likely to get.
Another problem is that spectrophotometers used to be extremely impractical, with the output being unique to the make or model of the machine. This meant, of course, that comparisons elsewhere could only be made using the exact same type of machine.
However, most modern equipment can use universal file formats that allow the information to be usefully compared from one brand of machine to the other - and thanks to the Internet and good management software, the impracticalities of transferring information from one step in the supply chain to the next have been eradicated.
Overcoming the problems
A more legitimate worry is that spectrophotometers are unable to take readings from certain fabrics - small prints, marls and heathers, for example - and for these samples, the more traditional physical methods still have to be used.
But that doesn't mean that spectrophotometers can't be used for the rest of the products - and making savings on 80 percent of production is a lot better than making no savings at all.
Once again, however, technology is adapting to overcome such problems, and new, high-quality digital camera systems can be used to analyse such materials right down to the individual fibres.
Of course, no problems can be fixed simply by bringing in technology; training must be given and the right equipment must be chosen for each business, and this takes time and effort.
Getting everything organised
For some businesses, even the knowledge that they can potentially save hundreds of thousands of pounds in the long run does not change the fact that they have no time to organise the installation of new systems in their companies, or the training of their employees.
This is where people like Malcolm Ball come into the picture - his company, Malcolm Ball Associates, provides a solution for companies who want to move up to modern colour control practices but don't have the time or knowledge.
He said: "The pressure is on to have a completely modern, efficient company, but for some people there's never enough time to develop everything so colour control gets left to one side.
"Having worked in colour control and being aware of the different types software and hardware, I can review what they're doing and recommend a road map to build a fully integrated system.
"Because I am not affiliated with any one colour analysis company, I can give a very objective solution to help them select the best supply and project manage it."
Ultimately, then, it seems that any business that has the capability to install modern colour-control systems would benefit enormously from doing so.
Yes, there is a not-inconsiderable initial outlay involved, but ultimately, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages enormously.
As Malcolm puts it: "Until colour is measured and becomes part of the management system, it is completely uncontrollable."