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Better together

Features | March 10, 2017 | By:

Collaborative efforts support growth in the smart textiles industry.

The more high tech an industry is, the greater the range of expertise it may need. Advanced textiles, particularly smart materials, are a prime example of this. Textiles often undergo a variety of processes requiring specialized skills and equipment, so collaboration is essential to the industry.

While there is cooperation at a business-to-business level, more is needed to grow regional strength and build capability. Globally, there are many good examples that provide a blueprint for how this can work well, both large and small-scale initiatives. But there are challenges as well, as the industry moves forward.

Government support

When I first became involved in smart materials in the early 1990s, I was quite impressed with the Japanese approach, most notably, the level of government involvement. The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) strongly encouraged and coordinated endeavors between government and industry. The consequence of this funding and hands-on approach was an interdisciplinary nature to research and development that drew together academic researchers and manufacturers—many of whom were normally in competition with one another.

For the textile industry, it provided an opportunity to move into new markets and away from natural fibers that were no longer economical to produce in Japan. This shift to advanced and smart materials was made easier by the fact that retraining and industry mobility of the workforce had been part of the government and industry mindset since the OPEC oil crisis in 1973. Following this, laws have been introduced (the first in 1977), to support new workforce needs.

Cooperation and collaboration are still key in the growth of smart materials, but how effectively are we meeting these challenges today?

The pace of change

Robotics are among the new technologies requiring collaboration at all levels to meet the needs of smart textile and apparel industries. High tech skill requirements are creating clusters that bring together industry, academia, research institutes and government agencies. Photo: Marie O'Mahony
Robotics are among the new technologies requiring collaboration at all levels to meet the needs of smart textile and apparel industries. High tech skill requirements are creating clusters that bring together industry, academia, research institutes and government agencies. Photo: Marie O’Mahony

Smart textiles have undergone a phenomenal level of change in the last decade, and that pace is predicted to continue. Planning for disruptive technologies or novel markets is not easy—or cheap. Dialogue between government and industry has become essential in determining key areas of focus and funding.

Recognizing this, the U.S. government (under the Obama administration) initiated the Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute (RFT-MII) with total funding expected to exceed $317million (“IFAI applauds RFT-MII announcement.”) The consortium brings together almost ninety academic institutions, industry representatives and nonprofit organizations. That it is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) speaks to its transdisciplinary ethos and the emphasis on cutting-edge technology.

An article published by the Manufacturing Institute and PWC, June 2016, “Upskilling Manufacturing: how technology is disrupting America’s industrial labor force,” said, “They [manufacturers] need a new generation of employees that possess the hybrid skills and comfort with innovation.”

The level and the pace of innovation create education and training demands that need cooperation to deliver. What we are seeing are demand-driven initiatives that focus on local industry. In Rochester, N.H., the Labor Dept. has awarded a grant to the Great Bay Community College to help education and training for “trade displaced” workers. The resulting Advanced Technology and Academic Center has a strong focus on composites with a view to the development of the industry along the costal region.

VF Corp., headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., has announced a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) to train students in 3D design technology. In explaining its value to the corporation, Phil McAdams, president of VF’s Jeanswear coalition, said, “VF maintains a pipeline of work-ready, young professionals who are able to make an immediate contribution to our business when hired.”

International alliances

One of the challenges to collaboration is caused by geographical obstacles. In Canada, a Smart Textile and Wearables Innovation Alliance (STWIA) was established in 2016 to draw the sector together (“Canada is putting a new emphasis on developing smart textiles and wearable innovations.”) It’s funded by the National Research Council of Canada (CNRC) and brings together a combination of large manufacturers, startups, research institutes and universities located on the east or west coasts, for the most part.

Australia faces similar geographical challenges with most of the population and industry based along its coastline. The New South Wales (NSW) government estimates that the startup sector will be worth AU$109 billion to the national economy by 2033. With this in mind, the government is setting up the Sydney School of Entrepreneurship this year, which will be a partnership of twelve tertiary institutions in the region. In launching the initiative, the NSW government acknowledges that to retain and grow these industries, “We will all need entrepreneurial skills and aptitudes to keep up to date with our jobs, to move between industries, work independently and know how to create value in new ways.”

European initiatives

The European model of collaboration to build strong industry sectors is well established with the 6th and 7th Research Framework Programme (FP6 and FP7) and Competitiveness and Innovation Programmes (CIP), then Horizon 2020: Research and Innovation Programme, which is currently running. Under FP6, collaborators came together to focus on the development of smart materials for markets such as healthcare.

The FP7 programme saw the next iteration in Integrating Platform for Advanced Smart Textile Applications (PASTA) that sought to build further capability in research and manufacturing. Achieving “scaleability” in manufacturing continues as a priority through Horizon 2020. Nanohybrids is an example of this, bringing together eleven partners to develop a new generation of nanoporous organic and hybrid aerogels, taking them from the laboratory to pilot-scale production.

Government or federally supported initiatives within individual European countries are enabling more regional capabilities to be flourish. The textile industry and universities in the area of Ghent, Belgium, have established strong connections. VLAIO is the Flemish organization tasked with supporting innovation and entrepreneurship; it includes a Baekeland mandate that offers doctoral-diploma funding for a Ph.D. candidate working with a Ghent university and an industry partner.

In the U.K., Professor Judith Mottram, Dean of the School of Materials at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London believes that we need to redistribute some industry investment away from “big science” and towards creative exploration in smart materials. She sees that the creative disciplines also need to become more agile.

“It’s all very well to talk of D-stem or Steam, but there is a responsibility then of the arts and design disciplines to ensure they understand better the principles of global science and technology communication and systems,” Mottram says. The RCA are working on industry supported Ph.D.’s, but she is quick to acknowledge that new, more bespoke ways of working with industry are needed and that established models of collaboration are becoming outmoded.

Levels of commitment

Sweden spends 3.31 percent of GDP on Research and Development (and the U.S. spends 2.73 percent) according to World Bank figures. Erik Bresky is President/CEO of Science Park Boras (Sweden) launched in 2016 with a remit to enable innovation in the region. He sees science and technology parts as important in stimulating and facilitating business innovation, while contributing directly to sustainable development and growth. Sustainable and smart textiles are a key area of development with collaborators, including the University of Boras, City of Boras, Västra Götaland Region and Sjuhärad in West Sweden.

The science park has prioritized three areas as a platform for research and business innovation: health and medicine, architecture and interiors, and sustainable textiles. One project currently under way is Garment Factory 4.0, funded by the European Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. The feasibility study is examining how the Swedish textile industry can take advantage of migrant skills in professional textile sewing. The objective of providing opportunities for migrants, as well as addressing the industry’s need for a new and updated skills force, highlights the possibility to address complex problems through the collaborative process.

Marie O’Mahony is Professor of Digital Futures at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University, Toronto. She is the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and a member of the Canadian Smart Textile and Wearables Innovation Alliance (STWIA).

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