Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

  • BAI Chuan
  • Hacking in a Factory

    Lessons from a month in a Chinese knitting plant.

    • by Laya Anasu
    • February 21, 2018
    • Laya Anasu's knits made with dissolving yarn include a scarf that could break into triangles if submerged in boiling water.

    The view of the backside of a digital knitting machine is beautiful in its chaos and fragility—and more than a little daunting. As one of seven students who traveled to Shenzhen, China, last August for Hacking Manufacturing, a course started by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, I got a firsthand look at that view—and a chance to see how a long-practiced manual skill like knitting translates to a piano-size machine.

    In previous years, the class had toured many factories; last summer our three instructors decided we’d spend our four weeks in King Credie, which makes flexible printed circuit boards, and K-Tech, a digital knitting factory. Employees explained the processes in both facilities and gave us freedom to play with some of their machines. Our assignment: hacking a manufacturing process to make it more efficient or environmentally friendly, to introduce a new capability, or to create art.

    MIT students who worked on projects at the K-Tech knitting factory pose with K-Tech employees.
    Bai Chuan
    This story is part of the March/April 2018 Issue of the MIT News magazine
    See the rest of the issue
    Subscribe

    I spent most of my time at K-Tech, where it was impressed upon me that knits are made with continuous stretches of yarn, woven together to stay firm and strong without breaking or fraying. Yet I was fascinated by the idea of tearing apart or breaking the result. On our first visit to K-Tech, we were shown different materials that could be used for knitting. For me, the most evocative demo involved a K-Tech staffer pouring boiling water into a cup and grinning as he tossed in a golf-ball-size wad of gray yarn. The yarn instantly dissolved.

    K-Tech workers wanted to find a use for the dissolving yarn but didn’t have time to experiment. Since our reason for being there was to try new things, I tucked that idea away as we toured the factory, learned how to program a knit with visual software, and got a crash course in operating digital knitting machines. Soon we were programming our ideas and threading more than a dozen different yarns through a dizzying array of loops, holes, yarn carriers, and needles. Under the supervision of K-Tech staff—who, despite language barriers, swooped in to help when we struggled—we produced beautiful, colorful knits.

    Things weren’t as easy when we were left on our own. We spent our first week experimenting, trying out yarns and patterns, and learning how to fix and clean the machines. We ruined so many needles it seemed we weren’t hacking manufacturing but breaking it. (Some students and K-Tech staffers even formed an impromptu band called “Broken Needles” and performed once at a bar.) 

    Image 1: Miguel Perez, whose project is called Structural Textiles, developed a technique for integrating plastic filament into the knitting process to create fabric with tunable stiffness.
    Image 2: Amos Golan developed an auxiliary device to control the pulling and feeding force of a yarn, making it possible to knit shape-changing material with stiff materials such as copper wire and shape-memory alloy.
    Bai Chuan

    I quickly discovered that knitting holes or pockets is hard. If you make a hole big enough for a hand, the knit usually falls apart and deforms. On my own, I broke lots of needles, making ugly messes in the machine. When I asked K-Tech staffers for ideas, they lent me the software pattern for a shoe with pockets knit into the side. After experimenting, I adapted it to produce many, many pockets.

    But all along, I thought about knitting to unravel with dissolving yarn. I experimented with knitting simple crisscrosses using polyester as the “criss” and dissolving yarn as the “cross.” The knit looked nice, but when I doused it with boiling water, it didn’t just unravel—it fell apart. I’d seen another student using a stiffening material called melting yarn to make rigid structures. So I mixed melting yarn with dissolving yarn and regular polyester to create patterns that resulted in mesh-like chain-mail structures.

    RedZ Studio & AntiHero Studio

    Still, I kept thinking about unraveling. I wanted to create knits that came out whole but would dissolve into working components or parts. Grad student Jifei Ou, the instructor who led our trip, was trying to inlay copper wire into knits with a zigzag pattern. We used that pattern to knit zigzags of the dissolving yarn into other materials; pairing it with melting yarn let us break the resulting rectangle into triangles and other shapes.

    Although we all learned different things in Shenzhen, we shared ideas and methodologies, mixing and matching yarns, patterns, and techniques to create new knits. And we came to understand that a knitting machine that can handle 16 yarns at once may outperform a two-handed human knitter, but it needs human attention and care. A give-and-take collaboration between human and machine produces the best result.

    Slideshow: Jifei Ou with the collaborative project Sensitive Textiles, which incorporated conductive yarn. The students who worked on this project produced a series of production-ready textile sensors that were connected to a control board developed in the King Credie flexible printed circuit board factory.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: Ani Liu’s art project, called Psyche in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, took a factory worker’s EEG data and translated the measured stress level to the program parameter that controls the tension of a knit. The result was a knitted carpet reflecting the worker’s emotions.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: In his Circuit Robots project, Artem Dementyev combined electrical components with mechanical and structural components, creating actuators and sensors using only flexible printed circuit boards (PCBs). The process involved creating air pockets between layers of materials for pneumatic actuators as well as embedding wires made of shape-memory alloy to create an alternative actuator. Using this technique, students constructed two types of flat robots that could walk when activated.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: Jie Qi experimented with a number of unusual PCB composite materials, including knitted textile, paper, and pressed leaves. She created speaker coils by etching spiral shapes into a flexible PCB and laminating them directly onto the experimental materials.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: Donald Haddad with the collaborative project Sensitive Textiles.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: Daniel Oran also collaborated on the Sensitive Textiles project.
    BAI Chuan
    Slideshow: With his neuroKnit project, Guillermo Bernal knitted a VR helmet containing a small pocket to hold a circuit. The circuit, which was developed in the flexible PCB factory, makes it possible to fine-tune the helmet’s shape.
    BAI Chuan

    Grad student Laya Anasu is a research assistant in the Media Lab’s City Science group. 

    Keep up with the latest in China at EmTech Digital.
    Don't be left behind.

    March 25-26, 2019
    San Francisco, CA

    Register now
    MIT students who worked on projects at the K-Tech knitting factory pose with K-Tech employees.
    Bai Chuan
    Image 1: Miguel Perez, whose project is called Structural Textiles, developed a technique for integrating plastic filament into the knitting process to create fabric with tunable stiffness.
    Image 2: Amos Golan developed an auxiliary device to control the pulling and feeding force of a yarn, making it possible to knit shape-changing material with stiff materials such as copper wire and shape-memory alloy.
    Bai Chuan
    Jifei Ou with the collaborative project Sensitive Textiles, which incorporated conductive yarn. The students who worked on this project produced a series of production-ready textile sensors that were connected to a control board developed in the King Credie flexible printed circuit board factory.
    BAI Chuan
    Ani Liu’s art project, called Psyche in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, took a factory worker’s EEG data and translated the measured stress level to the program parameter that controls the tension of a knit. The result was a knitted carpet reflecting the worker’s emotions.
    BAI Chuan
    In his Circuit Robots project, Artem Dementyev combined electrical components with mechanical and structural components, creating actuators and sensors using only flexible printed circuit boards (PCBs). The process involved creating air pockets between layers of materials for pneumatic actuators as well as embedding wires made of shape-memory alloy to create an alternative actuator. Using this technique, students constructed two types of flat robots that could walk when activated.
    BAI Chuan
    Jie Qi experimented with a number of unusual PCB composite materials, including knitted textile, paper, and pressed leaves. She created speaker coils by etching spiral shapes into a flexible PCB and laminating them directly onto the experimental materials.
    BAI Chuan
    Donald Haddad with the collaborative project Sensitive Textiles.
    BAI Chuan
    Daniel Oran also collaborated on the Sensitive Textiles project.
    BAI Chuan
    With his neuroKnit project, Guillermo Bernal knitted a VR helmet containing a small pocket to hold a circuit. The circuit, which was developed in the flexible PCB factory, makes it possible to fine-tune the helmet’s shape.
    BAI Chuan
    Next in MIT News
    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
    • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

      See details+

      Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

      Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

      10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

      Ad-free website experience

    /3
    You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.