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U.S. boosts funding for next generation textiles development

April 7th, 2016 / By: / Industry News

On April 1 as the U.S Dept. of Labor announced that 215,000 non-farm jobs were added in March, the federal government announced another positive development for the next-generation textile industry with the creation of a national institute to spearhead what one might call an “Internet of Textile Things.”

A consortium taking the name “Advanced Functional Fabrics of America” (AFFOA) has been formed with $317 million committed for a period of five years. The U.S. Dept. of Defense (DoD) is pledging $75 million as a federal contribution for the public-private initiative. Universities and industry are providing matching funds and cost-sharing to the tune of about $250 million to run the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spearheaded effort.

The revolutionary fiber-fabric innovation institute came out of a proposal developed by a group of 145 charter members that includes U.S. universities, manufacturing entities, startups and workforce development groups covering 27 states and Puerto Rico.

The U.S. government’s role

Since the 1990s, the U.S. government has played a significant role in creating consortia to develop the advanced textile industry. The National Textile Center (NTC) initiative, originally involving four major Universities in the Southeast that have a rich textile R&D tradition, and which was later expanded to include institutes in the West and Northeast, is a pioneering model to bridge federal funds and industry requirements. The NTC received federal appropriations that were managed by the Dept. of Commerce—and that supported Ph.D. scholars at many universities, many of whom are employed in the U.S. high-tech textile sector.

The industry/university program of the National Science Foundation streamlined the involvement of industry in academic R&D and supported the creation of the state/industry/university nonwovens research center in 1991. This program formed the basis for The Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University (NCSU), a global leader in the nonwovens field. But the AFFOA is by far the largest textile consortium effort in the U.S., in terms of funding commitment and involvement of industry-wide members, to grow the textile industry with a view of revamping the manufacturing sector.

It is hoped that the center will lead to the development of textile materials that haven’t yet been imagined and that are disruptive in nature. This should enable the U.S. textile sector to be a high-tech sector with enhanced manufacturing and high-paying jobs.

It is estimated that without any interventional and support schemes like AFFOA the U.S. textile industry would lose 50,000 jobs in the next decade. The Revolutionary Fiber National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) is a sincere effort to stop job losses and create high-wage manufacturing jobs. This NNMI will showcase outreach and workforce development efforts through the involvement of community colleges like Gaston College, NCSU and Worcester, Mass.-based Quinsigamond Community College.

Diverse nature

One of the strengths of AFFOA that has helped with the winning of the competitive bid is the diverse nature of the initiative itself, says Gajanan Bhat, Ph.D., of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK), which is a charter member of the AFFOA. The project leaders have been diligent enough to be inclusive and have brought universities and manufacturing entities from different parts of the country to be part of the project. For example, by involving the University of California-Davis from the West, to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMAS-Amherst) in the Northeast, to the University of Central Florida in the Southeast, the project will bring a unique and multidisciplinary approach to develop the next-generation textile sector.

Another important strength is the greater involvement of start-ups and small and medium-sized companies. Leading technology companies such as the audio giant Bose, Intel, DuPont and Nike are enthusiastically supporting the effort as it may lead to new applications for their products.

While announcing the creation of the center, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (a physicist by training) said, “The effort will lead to creating parachutes with sensors that can detect damages, chem-bio protective clothing with sensors, and washable fabrics with sensors.” These projects are truly multidisciplinary in nature, which have to work at the interfaces of fields such as materials science, biology, chemistry, electrical engineering and others.

Multidisciplinary team

AFFOA initiative involves different disciplines with an overarching goal to create textile materials with added functionalities—in other words, be smarter than they are now. According to Yoel Fink, Ph.D., of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, MIT, the institute will foster a “fabric revolution.” New technologies that have been developed in his laboratory and from others will integrate many different materials and complex structures into fibers to develop revolutionary functional fabric systems.

The institute will bring researchers outside the core group of textile academia to incorporate novel ideas and functionalities. Ayman Abouraddy, Ph.D., of the University of Central Florida will utilize his photonics expertise to develop novel products, such as shirts that can monitor blood pressure, dresses that can change their color by applying stresses, window shades that can harvest the sun’s energy, self-drying shoes and other products. To aid these efforts, the University of Central Florida has committed $29 million for the five-year effort.

The Textiles and Nonwovens Development Center at UTK will network with companies and will work on projects to incorporate smart fibers into nonwovens and protective textiles. The only public university in New England in the consortium, UMA has committed $1 million, which will add strength in the polymer science and engineering field. The University of Georgia has special expertise in biopolymers and will play an important role in developing sustainable technical textiles.

A range of expertise

Even while the project is evolving, it’s clear that the five-year effort will strengthen emerging sectors in the textile field, such as biotextiles, nanofibers, functional finishes and wearable textiles.

Startups in the nanotechnology arena include Cambridge, Mass.-based Nano Terra; Chattanooga, Tenn.-based eSpin; Dallas, Texas-based ChK Group, which specializes in nano-metaloxide products that have catalytic activities needed for the functionalization of textiles; McAllen, Texas-based nanofiber spinning equipment manufacturer FibeRio®, which is itself an example of how university’s translational efforts can benefit the industry. These companies are actively participating as charter members.

As the DoD is the federal government’s representative in the consortium, many projects to benefit warfighters will evolve, which will also benefit small, defense-related businesses. For example, Ten97, the inventor of Armorvent™ ballistic technology, which provides air ventilation, while protecting the wearer from ballistic threats, is involved in the consortium. Dr. Bhat, who directs the Nonwovens Research Program at UTK, says that he was able to recruit small innovative companies like Tech 97 and Mini Fibers of Kingsport, Tenn., because of their intensive R&D base and the creative ways they translate products and create jobs.

The consortium’s impact

Certainly, with the huge investments both by public and private sectors, and the involvement of a diverse talent pool having multidisciplinary knowledge, the AFFOA will develop some disruptive technologies impacting the manufacturing economy. According to Dr. Bhat, who spearheaded the effort to integrate academia and industry in the Southeast, “The revolutionary textile manufacturing innovation hub will enable the growth of the textile sector in the United States for the next two to three decades.”

Dr. Bhat is optimistic that this initiative will create new jobs in the manufacturing sector. Similarly, Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III says that when he co-sponsored the legislation “Revitalize American Manufacturing Innovation Act” with New York Congressman Tom Reed, the bill had unanimous backing in the U.S. House of Representatives, as it strengthens the U.S. job market and industrial sector.

Paul Sawhney, Ph.D., a textile researcher with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, says, “Developing new and improved technologies and function-specific products would have broad impact on the U.S. domestic textile industry and the U.S. military.” Further, he says that successful implementation of research results from the AFFOA initiative would considerably improve the national economy. Already, the news about the huge investment has brought cheers in the textile community around the world. K. Selvaraju, Ph.D., Secretary General of South India-based Southern India Mills’ Association calls it “a source of pride for textile professionals.”

Although the project has an initial lifespan of five years, the collaborations and outcomes will have ripple effects and hopefully will result in a new textile economy, wherein we will have fabrics that can sense, smell and function. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who is an MIT graduate, says, “It is a big collaboration effort to make many lives safe and better.”

Provided, the projects in AFFOA are well executed and the results are transferred to industry partners on time, certainly new products and industries will evolve. This should create jobs beyond the current estimate of fifty thousand.

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., FTA (Honorary) is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University.