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Innovation: What, why and how?

Features | February 3, 2022 | By:

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have integrated advanced metamaterials into flexible textiles to create a system capable of battery-free communication between articles of clothing and nearby devices. Photo: University of California, Irvine.

A new path forward for both incremental and disruptive innovations in products and technologies. 

by Seshadri Ramkumar

Addressing the challenges of COVID-19 has underscored the importance of having faith in the ability of science and technology. Innovations in many areas have made our lives better. While the textile industry has been an integral component of the manufacturing sector prior to COVID-19, people generally would not have realized that textile products can, in fact, be lifesaving. 

In addition to vaccines, face masks are now part of our everyday lives. One would have thought that the use of face masks would come to a full stop, once vaccination was in full swing and the majority of the global population was getting vaccinated. But this has not been the case. The recent Omicron surge has enhanced the need for high quality masks that could provide higher filtration efficiency, good fit and better comfort. 

The evolution of face masks, from being a surgical filter to filtering facepiece respirator, is a prime example of innovation and may be termed disruptive in its own way. “Innovation is a mind-to-market game achieved through an amalgamation of diverse knowledge stakeholders,” says Ganesh Srinivasan, CEO of Bengaluru, India-based Resil Chemicals. 

Driving innovation forward

Economics didn’t support the manufacturing industry in developed economies in the past four decades, when it came to commodity products such as T-shirt or jeans. It would be puzzling how even high-tech products, such as the manufacturing of integrated chips, moved to countries such as Taiwan, and yet, COVID-19 has been a rude awakening for all of us. The manufacturing, designing of advanced products, and research and development cannot be neglected, at least in essential and lifesaving products in advanced economies.

There is a need to have some percentage of domestic manufacturing for products such as industrial and advanced textiles used in environmental and medical fields. This is clear from the fact that India was able to produce vaccines for its huge population as it has a good production base for medicines with the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Pune, India-based Serum Institute. Investments must also be long term and based on strategic planning, identification areas that will have broader impact, while focusing on immediate and urgent requirements.

The U.S. Dept. of Defense has been a pioneer in strategic planning while prioritizing immediate and urgent needs. Such investments have enabled the growth of academic research laboratories and small- and medium-scale enterprises. Research developed in these entities are often licensed to larger corporations to take them to marketplace, as budgets for research in big corporations have been shrinking. This innovation ecosystem has been found to be productive. 

Innovations in advanced textiles

Innovations can be broadly classified as either incremental or disruptive. While disruptive technologies lead to exponential growth and sales of breakthrough products, incremental development that caters to the needs of a particular sector or end-user can also function effectively.

Cameron Smith, Office of Research Commercialization at Texas Tech University, offers this insight: “Disruptive technologies can have significantly greater barriers to market entry than typical industry improvement technologies. However, disruptive technologies also hold the greatest potential for economic impact, even establishing their own new markets and economies in some scenarios. 

“For example, Gatorade® with its trailblazing of an entire sports drink and supplement market was originally met with opposition. Or, most recently, 5G technology opening the door for unprecedented wireless connectivity and requiring networking services and device industries to implement 5G capabilities to keep up. Disruptive technologies also disrupt economies, abruptly sunsetting some, while rapidly expanding others to accommodate the new technology.” 

Another interesting example is the Joint Services Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST) designed to provide toxic chemical protection, reduce the logistical burden on warfighters and improve comfort. As developing the enhanced JSLIST is a long-term goal, the U.S. Dept. of Defense has been successful with incremental innovation. 

The use of spherical activated carbon resulted in enhanced surface area, while reducing the weight of activated carbon and enhancing the adsorption of toxic vapors. This is the approved technology in chemical protective suits by all four branches of the U.S. military. 

The next step is to develop a chemical and biological countermeasure capability in a single protective suit. Such a technology has to be disruptive in nature. The need for such advanced textile products will keep R & D entities and small- and medium-sized operations occupied with applied research. Developing such advanced products needs multidisciplinary investments. 

There are interesting developments on the horizons, which may not be yet in scale for mass consumption. Natural product chemistries are getting good attention due to their sustainability benefits, and maybe another opportunity in textile markets. Chennai, India-based Asthagiri Herbal Research Foundation has been active in this arena. “Herbal product-infused textiles possess cosmetic and therapeutic potential,” says Srinivasan Narasimhan, Chairman of Asthagiri Herbal Research Foundation. 

Interesting developments in research conducted by Narasimhan include a product for disinfection and decomposing blood stains in sanitary napkins. Another product has been made as “Mask Mate” which on fusion with masks, provides relief from nasal infections and also disinfects filtered microbes. Also, a non-alcoholic sanitizer has been made which can be infused into textiles for various antimicrobial applications.

Platform technology 

Evolving disruptive technologies may be few and far between, but opportunities in incremental improvements and developing platform technologies are relatively plenteous. Again, in the recent past, the U.S. Dept of Defense has been successful in supporting projects that have resulted in platform technologies, which appeal to multiple sectors with different applications. 

Among such different products, textile based non-particulate, non-aqueous decontamination wipe, FiberTectTM marketed by Chantilly, Va.-based First Line Technology LLC, is a good example. This product, based on robust technical evaluation by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has been recommended as part of Low-cost Personnel Decontamination System (LPDS). The non-particulate, fabric-based technology was developed to decontaminate sensitive equipment such as military aircraft parts, but the absorptive technological capability has enabled “outside the box” applications, such as in animal care. 

“Animals are constantly getting themselves in a situation in flooded waters and industrial agricultural chemicals, sewage ponds—there’s a lot of things they can get into. So, a FiberTectTM wipe would be really good to keep with you to wipe them down,” says Brett Huff, technical rescue specialist and instructor for Code 3, a leader in emergency response product design, and Animal Search and Rescue, a technical rescue team that specializes in animals. 

A multidisciplinary approach

Today, disciplinary specific, “silo-research” may not lead to disruptive and enhanced innovative products, capable of being useful in multiple applications. Metal oxides have been found to have catalytic properties, such as those found in magnesium oxides, zinc oxide and other. The particulate nature of these particles, as was the case with M291 powders (for skin decontamination), may not enable universal applications. To counter such inherent difficulties, multidisciplinary approaches involving chemistry, biology and material science disciplines will be useful. 

Catalytic particles can be used to functionalize textile products utilizing the chemistry and material aspects of fibrous materials, such flexibility, ease of manufacturing and other functionalities. Resil Chemicals has been using functionalization approaches to develop textile-based products. The company’s “Klenza” mask is a three-layer protective mask infused with silver technology. The dual silver-coated layer (outer and inner layers) acts as a shield against microbes, again illustrating the potential of functionalizing fibrous substrates. 

Innovation phases

Based on the majority of innovations that have led to commercial successes in the textile field, incremental development, pushing for platform technologies and utilizing multidisciplinary approaches will result in products with broader appeal and more applications.

“Technologies are only picked for further development and commercialization if they represent a significant improvement over existing technology or provide an entirely new capability to help responders save lives,” says Corey Collings, director of research and development at First Line Technology.

While there is no textbook method to come up with innovations, working towards solutions in a particular sector by involving different fields will certainly lead to new processes, products and new areas of exploration. 

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor in the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.

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