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Levi's rolls out jean-finishing laser process

Global jean-wear brand Levi Strauss is employing lasers in its new automated denim-finishing process, which will lead to a significant reduction in the amount of harsh chemicals used and will shorten time to market for new styles.

Many of the traditional methods of achieving different textures and looks have been criticised for their effect on the environment and factory workers. For example, conventional techniques to produce a distressed appearance – like sandblasting, manual scrapping, or applying potassium permanganate – can be harmful to human health – blasting denim with sand, for instance, has been linked to lung disease in workers.

In addition, the harsh chemicals used have made their way into rivers nearby textile factories, prompting much environmental concern.   

Levi’s is scaling the newly-developed laser approach, which it calls Project FLX (future-led execution), across its entire denim supply chain, which is expected to be fully in place by 2020.

According to the company, a typical pair of jeans used to require 18 to 20 finishing steps, which would take between 20 and 30 minutes. The laser technology allows the finishing process to be reduced to three steps, reducing the time to just 90 seconds. In addition, the time-to-market – from concept and design to the start of retail – can be reduced by several months, said Liz O’Neill, Levi’s chief supply chain officer.  

The move to laser technology could also allow the Levi’s to eliminate thousands of chemical formulations from its supply chain. The company plans to reduce the total number of chemical formulations used from thousands to a few dozen. Beyond eliminating many chemicals, Project FLX is expected to reduce textile waste by more accurately making what the market needs and may also provide the opportunity to save water in the future.

To develop the laser process, Levi’s worked with Spanish firm Jeanologia, which designs and develops laser systems that enhance industrial productivity, improve energy efficiency, and eliminate waste. ‘Thanks to lasers, it is possible to achieve – in a sustainable and efficient way – endless designs, vintage looks, precise breaks, total prints, [and different] textures,’ explained Jeanologia’s marketing manager Carmen Silla.

One of its machines, the Flexi HS3D laser system, uses a CO2 slab laser and features a scan head from Scanlab. Jeanologia also supplies its eMark software to program the laser system, within which it is possible to combine designs, apply filters and textures, and experiment with different brightness to get an authentic and 3D look in the final product.

Jeanologica has supplied more than 1,000 laser systems for marking jeans for renowned brands such as Polo Jeans, Abercrombie and Fitch, Edwin Japan, Pepe Jeans, Diesel, Hilfiger Denim, Calvin Klein, and other large retailers such as Gap, Uniqlo and H&M.

Despite the fact that manual labour will be replaced, a spokeswoman for Levi's told the BBC that company does not expect any job losses ‘in the near-term’, because employees can be retrained and put to work in other areas. Given the growth of our business with our vendors, we've seen that our manufacturing partners have generally been able to redeploy any affected workers,’ she said.

The firm added that a number of the Levi’s staff have been retrained and reskilled in software development and laser operations. ‘Retraining will be a key tenet as this new model rolls out globally,’ it said in the announcement.  

‘Our goal was to tackle two predominant industry challenges – being able to respond quickly to changing consumer trends while making the manufacturing process more sustainable,” said Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss.  ‘We are addressing both agility and sustainability without compromising the authenticity our consumers expect from us. This is the future of jeans manufacturing.’

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