High-tech puts new chirp in Dixie mills

I have heard the future, and it chirps. One of the first things a visitor to Burlington Industries' state-of-the-art denim weaving plant notices is the distinctive high-pitched chirp of the Prontows, or ``automated guided vehicles,'' as they make their rounds, bearing huge bolts of fabric or supplies.

These AGVs, about knee-high and the length of a small station wagon, are guided by an FM radio signal as they travel like little parade floats along tracks embedded in the concrete floor. Their chirping noise, suggestive of some kind of high-tech cicadas, is of course a warning signal to let people know they're coming.

This plant in Erwin, self-proclaimed ``denim capital of the world,'' illustrates the kind of commitment to new technology the textile industry prides itself on. The denim weaving operation was once housed in the same mill as the carding, drawing, and spinning. But the introduction of the latest shuttleless looms required a new building: The new machines are so much faster and more powerful that their vibrations would have been more than the older building could bear. Inside, robots pirouette gravely as they lift and load pallets of yarn and other materials.

Cloth from these looms is all visually inspected; notations of flaws or other problems are recorded on a computer, so that each bolt of finished fabric leaves the plant with a little ``map'' attached. The customer can read this map to find out where any problems are, then work around them -- using some flawed cloth for pockets, for example.

When Yale professor Charles A. Reich, in his book ``The Greening of America,'' praised the humble blue jean as a garment with great potential for self-expression by the wearer, despite its mass production, he may have been onto something. The Erwin plant turns out some 18 to 30 different different types of denim; the mood is mainly indigo, but black and gray denim are in evidence, too.

The differences among types are of a subtlety one assumes is fully appreciated only by the various jeansmakers for whom the cloth is produced. But this ability to give customers exactly what they want is an important part of the ``new'' textile industry. The jeans industry needs denim for two kinds of jeans, basic and fashion. And to compete nowadays, ``You've got to be able to do both,'' says a plant official.

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