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The innovation ecosystem in advanced textiles

Understanding the fundamentals—and how to participate—in market growth.

Features | June 26, 2023 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D.

The Novamont Group based in Italy was created to pursue the integration of chemistry and agriculture. Its innovative Mater-Bi is a family of bioplastics that’s biodegradable even at low temperatures, does not release microplastics into the environment and has no eco-toxic effects. Photo: Novamont.

Billionaire investor Raymond Dalio, founder and chairman of Bridgewater Associates, an American investment management firm, has said that education and technology are key influencers among the factors that propel economic development and spearhead growth, but specific skillsets, beyond professional or core competencies, are needed. These include analytical capability, communication and human interaction skills, marketing expertise and a solid grasp of financial requirements. 

Research in the advanced textile sector

Advanced textiles can be categorized as a growth sector, but the sector is also highly research intensive, and as such it needs to be nimble and provide growth avenues for start-ups. Increased knowledge takes place via multiple forms of research and development. These include basic, applied, translational, and market creation, which happens through “push and pull” approaches. 

The advanced textiles sector is the home for both of these approaches, and it appears that research in the advanced manufacturing and textiles sector is into its fourth phase leading to start-ups. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, came out of fundamental research aided by push strategy, but necessity creates products, such as antiballistic and easy-care cotton products, which were supported by pull approaches by stakeholders and consumers. While wearable textiles with embedded electronics offer enormous potential, it is still a push strategy by product developers due to cost issues, a lack of consumer knowledge and a need for more standards, among other reasons. 

An area where there is a balance and opportunity for pull and push strategies lies in the development of cost-effective sustainable products. Particularly in the case of medical and hygiene advanced textiles, there is a timely need for these products. Industrial associations, such as the Advanced Textiles Association (ATA), The Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry (INDA) and the Europe-based nonwovens organization, EDANA, are doing their part by promoting the advantages of environmentally responsivle products and in participating in the development of new standards. 

In the case of R & D and marketing of new bio-based products, outreach and engagement with the public is important. Therefore, the burden rests with professional and trade associations to work with not only technical schools, but also with schools of communication and business specifically, to attract talent to the industry who can effectively communicate. It is evident that new product development does not end just by creating new products, but also with effective engagement and marketing with business partners all the way to end consumers.

The advanced textiles ecosystem

Like the physics world depends on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, a similar equation with different attributes that deal with the economy can be useful to understand and create new markets and products. An economic ecosystem can be thought of in this way:  E α MC2, where M” stands for the market size; “C” stands for capital/resources and; “C” stands for cost. 

The economy is built by consumers, which is the market “M.” Consumers buy a product at an affordable cost, which is based on the available resources at the producer and purchaser levels, denoted by the first “C” in the equation. Market development and growth depend on capital availability. Products are purchased to a major extent based on price value, which is proportional to the cost of the product, as denoted by the second “C” in the equation. Cost is again based on fixed and variable aspects that influence the economics of the process. Understanding this (E α MC2) as an economic equation can help entrepreneurs get a handle on important attributes that drive the growth of the industry.

In the case of cost being low or affordable, consumers tend to buy more commodity products, increasing market size. The advanced textiles sector needs to have capital to invest in infrastructure, R & D, marketing and outreach to develop products at an affordable cost. With the availability of more resources for manufacturing, research and marketing, market size can be enhanced. This sector is in a better position because prices may not be a barrier, as many products are for critical use in medical, health and wellbeing markets, protective products and environmental applications.   

Data for growth

The value of an industry is based on its fixed and variable assets, volume or market size and the price of the product. It is important for the industry, particularly for new entrants such as start-ups, to understand these basic aspects of the industry with reliable data. Prominent industry associations like the Advanced Textiles Association and INDA publish reports such as the State of the Industry, and Market and Price Statistics, which are a good place to start to have a good grip on industry information.

Market statistics on fibers like synthetics and cotton can be obtained from reports made by the European Man-Made Fibers Associations (CIRFS), and regular reports from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for cotton like The World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimate (WASDE). A macro-economic picture on the global economy is available from Economic Outlooks published by the International Monetary Fund, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and World Bank.

In addition, national and regional economic data can be obtained from agencies of these governments. An important activity of the planning and/or administration divisions of the industry is to analyze these reports, which help with stock planning, purchase and sales. New entrants should make it a regular practice to use these resources, which can return good dividends. 

Consumer surveys and feedback are great resources for entrepreneurs. “The entrepreneur should be hands-on with the end-user or customer to understand the performance of the product, cost aspects and so forth,” says Sridhar Narayanan, founder and chairman of Chennai, India-based Grand Alliance for Management Excellence.

New product development tips

As industrial and advanced textiles are predominantly for both saving lives and lifestyle enhancement, they need to focus on functionality. The demand for these products, which are often single use, is normally higher than commodity textiles. Based on functionality, requirements, such as toxic chemical adsorption, blood and bodily fluid absorption, barrier to high-speed projectiles, product development and improvements, happen dynamically. 

In the case of defense and first responder garments, feedback from stakeholders plays an important role in product improvement. Defense textiles development is coordinated by national governments and opportunities for research and procurement are announced through Broad Agency Announcements. There are opportunities for SMEs and start-ups through the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program.  In the case of hygiene and medical textiles, industry is “in the driver’s seat” with regard to product improvements and new product releases.

“One of the larger challenges of converting research into commercial products is scaling up production under real-world operational constraints.  Providing transparency about eventual constraints that will occur during scale-up while scoping and funding research projects can aid in avoiding rework at the benchtop,” says Dr. Matt O’Sickey, director of education and technical affairs at INDA (Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry). 

Additionally, O’Sickey says, “Finding good partners that can provide real prototypes of the final product, particularly produced at manufacturing line speeds, can greatly accelerate a project towards successful completion.”

Many government agencies have initiatives. The U.S. National Science Foundation’s I-Corp and the Indian government’s Start-up India, Atal Incubation Centers provide opportunities for the industry to collaborate with government agencies. “Entrepreneurs should not shy away in asking for help,” emphasized Sridhar Narayanan.

Opportunities galore

Advanced textiles due to their functionality requirements, high-end applications, single-use and semi-durable nature, provide ample opportunities for research and development, product improvements and innovations. Such aspects demand the industry to be nimble in terms of innovations and marketing. 

Therefore, start-ups and SMEs have good inroads to launch products on their own, develop contract products as private labels, or work with larger companies and multinationals. Innovation in technology, marketing and outreach is the way forward for this sector.

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, and a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. 

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