Manufacturing and Small Business & Startups

Startup weaves in 400-year-old tech

3-D knitting lab develops prototypes for clients across industries using CNC machines that create products in one phase.

July 14, 2017
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Liz Hilton runs 3-D knitting laboratory KNITit. The startup company works with clients in various industries, from office furniture and automotive to wearable tech and consumer electronics. Courtesy Aaron Geller Photography

A startup on South Division Avenue is harnessing a technology invented in 1589 for sustainable applications in advanced manufacturing.

KNITit, at 319 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids, is a 3-D knitting laboratory launched by Greenwich Village native Liz Hilton in 2015.

“When you think of the word ‘knitting,’ you probably have an image of a little old lady with two big chunky knitting needles. But KNITit is not your grandma’s knitting,” Hilton said.

Hilton, who calls herself the chief knit picker, has two employees: Alexis Troxell, executive knit wit, and Tracey Weisman, knit architect.

They use a trio of CNC machines, made by German manufacturer Stoll and Japanese manufacturer Shima Seiki, for a process called flatbed weft knitting.

KNITit uses the machines to develop product ideas for clients in the office furniture, medical garment, automotive, protective wear, consumer electronics and wearable technology industries.

“We don’t sell a product; we sell a process,” Hilton said. “We believe we can knit anything.”

She said 3-D knitting can mean different things depending on who you ask.

“It’s a subjective term. Here, we define it as a product made in one process, and for us, that process is flatbed weft knitting.”

William Lee invented the first machine for 3-D knitting, called the stocking-frame knitting machine, in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1589 to mechanize stocking knitting.

Because Queen Elizabeth I denied him a patent for fear the hand-knitting industry would suffer, the technology did not advance much further until the Industrial Revolution. A century later, flatbed weft knitting was used widely for making sweaters and other knit clothing.

While the machines still dominate the garment industry, around 40 years ago, automotive and office furniture manufacturers began using 3-D knitting in components and ergonomic seating.

Hilton said cut-and-sew, 3-D printing and injection molding techniques are less time-intensive ways of arriving at similar results, but 3-D knitting has sustainable advantages.

“Our process involves zero waste, zero post-knit labor, zero cutting and zero stitching. Our products can be a complete end product, like a medical garment, or it can be a component of a product, like a suspension back of a chair.”

She emphasized that KNITit does not produce fashion garments.

“We use technical yarns to create technical products,” she said. “Our clients want us to make compression garments for edema, athletic wear and protective garments.”

In a video on her website, Hilton explains clients come to KNITit with an idea, and the team helps them identify the yarns and stitch constructions that are best for the product.

Following a series of iterations and feedback, KNITit creates a prototype for the client. Sometimes the client also wants the team to do small batches leading up to mass production with one of KNITit’s 3-D knitting manufacturing partners.

Often, the process is more about discovery. Clients might decide to take their new knowledge elsewhere.

“Maybe they’ll decide cut-and-sew is best for them because they want to make this in China, and then they’ll go do that,” Hilton said. “But at least they’ll have learned a more sophisticated alternative.”

She said flatbed weft knitting is more versatile than other methods.

“There’s a lot of cost savings that come after it’s knit. Of all the fabrication processes out there, this is the slowest, but it’s also the most versatile and most sophisticated.

“It’s like 3-D printing in a way, but more sophisticated, because we can work with six different materials,” she said.

The flatbed machines knit with “materials that have been extruded into yarn,” such as Kevlar, found in bulletproof vests; Nomex, which has flame-retardant properties; carbon fiber, quartz, fiberglass and steel.

“We can actually knit with glass,” she said.

Hilton’s path to commercial knitting had some twists and turns. She studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, specializing in knit design.

During her studies, she learned how to operate 3-D manual machines, as well as CNC machines. After graduating, she had the opportunity to work with the manufacturer Stoll in Germany and then in New York.

She thought she would make 3-D knit garments to inspire designers to buy the flatbed weft machines for their factories.

But certification in higher levels of CNC machine programming connected her to a company in Grand Rapids several years ago called Teknit, whose technical director, John MacGilbert, has since moved on to become the senior “knitovator” at Nike.

After three-and-a-half years at Teknit, Hilton knew she wanted to open her own product development business.

Drawn to the live-work spaces on South Division, she leased her current space with the intention of making it a storefront for garment sales as well as a knitting lab, before deciding to channel her specialized knowledge into product development.

KNITit won $5,000 at a 5x5 startup pitch night in 2015, and Hilton put the money toward a CNC machine and supplies.

“It was good timing,” she said. “If I didn’t win 5x5, I still would have gone ahead with my business, but it did make things a little better having that $5,000. Obviously, it didn’t cover the expense of everything I needed to buy. It’s CNC equipment, and it’s very expensive.”

KNITit started with one machine and now has three. It currently is in the process of securing a new program that will allow all three programmers to work on any machine in the shop at the same time.

Hilton said Grand Rapids was the perfect place to start this kind of business.

“I don’t think I could have fulfilled my dream of creating KNITit in any other city in the world,” she said, noting that Grand Rapids’ furniture and automotive manufacturing core created a wealth of product development opportunities.

“There’s so much support from the entrepreneurial community that it’s overwhelming, especially for women and minorities. The cost of living is great, and the industry is great.”

It takes a few years to bring this technology to market, so KNITit still is in development phase with most of its clients. Hilton said she expects to see some of the products they have worked on hit the market in 2018.

Meanwhile, the business is looking to expand to other industries.

“We really want to explore 3-D knit composite solutions in the fields of automotive and aerospace,” she said. “Maybe even knitting in the field of solar panels. Anything to do with smart textiles with wearable technology. We have been trying to present our solutions to companies in those areas.

“There’s a company in France, RT2I, that uses flatbed weft knitting to make composite air ducts. We would like to do that, since we’re so close to GE and other manufacturing plants.

“Grand Rapids is rich with that, and there’s a lot more opportunity for us here.”

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