Small and essential

November 20th, 2017 / By: / Featured

Narrow and small-scale textiles thrive in collaborative partnerships.

Workers in dangerous construction environments depend on safety equipment that uses high-tech narrow fabrics.

The narrow fabrics industry belongs in the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) category, based on the number of employees per organization. The latest United States’ Census Bureau data show that this sector has about 248 companies in the U.S. that employ about 7,840 people, with the average number of employees per organization at 35.

Although the sector is relatively small, it is very important in the advanced textiles products industry as it develops consumer-oriented, value-added products. This necessitates the need to always be on the innovative pathway and to come up with cost-effective materials. Smaller enterprises have inherent pressures to address, including adequate resources for research and development, marketing challenges, and competition from large-scale industry.

While there may be some barriers for the sector, being smaller in size also enables it to be nimble, which lends itself to collaboration for growth. Also, the nature of the products and their applications can contribute to making this sector viable, and the more useful the product is to society, the more it will thrive.

The classic example is the seat belt, a narrow fabric product that’s virtually ubiquitous worldwide. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the penetration rate of this product in the United States is 90.1 percent, and in 2015, the use of seat belts helped to save 13,941 lives. The example of seat belts pushes the industry to focus on products that will save lives, protect the environment or improve our lives in a potentially significant way. These are the essential elements for success in the sector.

Driving growth

The narrow fabrics industry can be broadly classified in two categories: roll goods and converted finished products. The immediate priority is to develop the converted sector of the narrow fabrics industry. As converted products touch consumer life in so many ways, growing this sector will reward the downstream processors such as raw material producers, equipment manufacturers, packaging providers and marketing agencies.

Seatbelts are a prime example of an advanced fabric in narrow format that’s met an enormous market requirement.

Advanced textiles and nonwoven webs are the basic raw materials that are transformed into seat belts, corrugated conveyor belts, hazmat liners, face mask fabrics, industrial wipes and many other consumer and industrial products. Value gets realized only at finalized products, so fabric producers will benefit by enabling the converted sector to innovate and develop cost-effective consumer products. Adaptability, customization and effective marketing are the growth drivers.

Adaptability

As an industry in the small-to-medium category, it has to adapt and collaborate in order to develop high-end products. Chantilly, Va.-based First Line Technology (FLT) is a good example of success in the converting sector. It has released high-end products in the market place such as its XPC Cooling Vest, which uses PhaseCore® phase-change material, and DeconTect decontamination products.

The company has adapted fabric structures to suit the needs of its customers, which include government agencies, the U.S. Military and first responders. FLT is working with Waco, Texas-based Hobbs Bonded Fibers for its nonwoven soft composites. These nonwovens are made into narrow-width fabrics that are then made into absorbent pads, mitts and other products.

FLT has exhibited adaptability by working with a large-scale manufacturer to use its existing infrastructure, such as wide-width needlepunch equipment, to develop small-sized roll goods that can be transformed into military products.

Collaborating with academia, industry partners and customers will continue to be a way forward for the industry.

Customization

Depending on the price and immediate applications, products developed by the industry need to be fine-tuned and customized. This aspect is critical. Chennai, India-based Wellgro Tech was founded by an IT technocrat and based in market need. It now offers a high-value narrow fabric-based product: eco-friendly, biodegradable oil absorbents. Wellgro Tech has been working with its customers like ONGC, India, port authorities and a roll-good manufacturer to develop products that find applications to protect the environment. Based on the input from Wellgro Tech, the roll-good manufacturer customized its manufacturing equipment to develop small-width fabrics that can be made into oil absorbent pads with sizes ranging from six-twelve inches.

This company has shown that collaborating with customers and original fabric producers can lead to the marketability of a product, rather than attempting to push a product or technology on a marketplace without sufficient interest in it. A collaborative spirit can also help with marketing the product, says Ramanujan Venkatakrishnan, founder and president. Marketing is a major stumbling block for SMEs, as it needs investment to support a range of promotional activities. Delivering a product by coordinating and collaborating is a quick win-win for stakeholders.

The industry will continue to thrive if its products meet important needs in society. With the industry lacking huge resources available to large-sized companies—which may be competitors—the following tips can be useful:

  1. Infrastructural weakness to develop a product can be resolved by collaborating with incubators, allied sectors and academia.
  2. Effective handling of marketing aspects should be based on clear interaction with potential and existing customers.
  3. Working with customers in open communication will help to deliver products that the market needs.
  4. Effectively use contacts across the value chain to develop cost-effective products, which can be readily absorbed by the market.

Delivering a new product that can be clearly distinguished from existing products is an important priority. This is supported by effective communication with a variety of stakeholders. Although it’s understood that SMEs that have fewer employees and resources may not be able to invest in laboratories and product development facilities, collaboration can help overcome this challenge, as well. With good market research and communication, the industry will be able to develop products that are needed by potential customers.

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