Centers for innovation offer new opportunities for collaborative work.
Over the past year there has been noticeable growth globally in the number of innovation centers. The textile industry is grappling with a pace of technological change across all areas, from farming practices and manufacturing equipment to fiber development and retail models. Any one of these is challenging, but for so many innovations to be coming on track at once provides both opportunity and challenges that individual expertise struggles to meet sufficiently.
In the U.S., Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) has been one response to meeting this need; however, it is not the only opportunity. Innovation centers, both within the company and as free-standing and collaborative entities, are becoming a popular means of harnessing new opportunities and bringing them to market in a more timely and scalable way.
Silk Road inspiration
In October 2013, the Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed an initiative for a “Silk Road Economic Belt” in Asia and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, jointly referred to as the Belt and Road, with the intention “to instill vigor and vitality into the ancient Silk Road, connect Asian, European and African countries more closely and promote mutually beneficial cooperation to a new high and in new forms.”
While much of it is directed at building infrastructure, trade and energy cooperation, we are also starting to see the emergence of initiatives in textile industry and education cooperation. On November 7, 2017 Clariant signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Shanghai University with the intention of using it to embark on long-term research and development projects. The company’s Innovation Fair held two months earlier reinforced their commitment to cooperative innovation in the region. In addition to collaborative R&D projects, the company and university plan on a series of seminars, internships and mentorships at Clariant.
“Clariant is a well-known international chemical company in China. Our partnership will certainly provide big incentives for our research teams to jointly develop industry-ready solutions dedicated to various sectors in China. Our students will also benefit through their close encounter with Clariant staff to learn the reality of the business world,” said Professor Siyi Gong, Deputy Secretary of Party Committee, Vice-President of Shanghai University.
The move is an interesting one on many levels. It signifies a view of China that goes beyond manufacturing and raising the question of whether we might start to see more production return to the Northern Hemisphere, but with innovation and IP moving to the Southern Hemisphere.
Bringing industry and academia together is a key focus for the nonwovens industry, particularly in the U.S. When the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) announced plans for a new facility at North Carolina State University (NCSU) at Raleigh, they stressed the inter-disciplinary nature of the field with a vision that would see them operating on an ‘open Innovation’ platform. “The Nonwovens Institute engages experts from industry and higher education in building next generation nonwoven applications while also providing training and guidance to the field’s future leaders,” the announcement said.
NWI research is undertaken at three primary levels. The first is education that is inter-disciplinary in nature and keeps a keen eye on the potential for technology transfer. Core research is carried out under five ‘pillar’ themes, such as material characterization and performance modeling. All members have open access to this data source. The third is sponsored research and is undertaken for, or with, individual member companies looking to “translate science into reality,” bringing an idea through the R&D process and negotiating intellectual property (IP) issues. That the institute is highly regarded by industry and academia, speaks to the success of its structure (a relatively simple one), and adherence to its core values.
Brands and innovation
The culture around the development and management of innovation within companies is evolving. The lab or innovation center is set to remain for the foreseeable future, but its nature is shifting. Consumer lifestyle brands company, VF Corp., established its VF Innovation Fund in 2010 to develop new ideas that would push the boundaries of experiment and innovation. Their intention was to encourage their brands to “think bigger and bolder.” This was quickly followed by an announcement in 2013 of plans to establish three innovation centers, based in the U.S. Karen Reuther, vice president, Creative, VF Global Innovation Center, understands that innovation for their brands varies, so that meeting the needs of each is a key challenge for her.
“The good news is that our consumers’ ongoing desire for innovation gives us a rich palette to design from,” says Reuther. “For us, it’s about delivering platforms to the brands that suit their needs and developing innovation that can be scaled across VF.”
NIKE Inc. is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as part of a co-lab to develop material innovation with a specific focus on sustainability. The Climate CoLab is housed under the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and aims to bring together a global collective intelligence to address complex problems in society – particularly those that relate to climate change. For NIKE, the intention is to bring innovation in materials to the forefront of the climate conversation as part of the brand’s commitment to reach fully renewable energy in company owned-and-operated facilities by 2025.
“For more than a decade, we’ve worked hard to understand where our greatest impacts lie. We know materials make up about 60 percent of the environmental impact in a pair of Nike shoes,” said Hannah Jones, chief sustainability officer and vice president, Innovation Accelerator, NIKE Inc. “This knowledge has focused us on the need to bring new low-impact performance materials to scale through innovative solutions.”
The collaborative laboratory approach brings real benefit when applied to a targeted goal, such as climate change. It can also allow participants to use several innovation models without the need to put all their financial and human resources into just one method that can be risky. This applies irrespective of the scale of company or institution involved. The downside is the need to agree on IP, without necessarily knowing what the final outcome will be.
Fiber and fabric manufacturers are establishing their own innovation labs as a means of incubating new ideas. The Amann Group is well established in the field of sewing and embroidery thread for markets that range from apparel to automotive. The Amann Innovation Lab was showcased at the TechTextil trade show at Messe Frankfurt in 2017, with a display booth dramatically different from its larger main booth. The intention of the lab is to communicate more directly with designers so that ideas and potential can be explored and developed with greater efficiency. The company believes that this approach will lead to greater innovation, offering protection of IP, as well as bespoke service for brands and designers.
The nature of innovation development is evolving—and rightly so. As regions recognize its economic value, new strategic plans and fresh partnership relationships are being put in place globally. The result is a domino effect that the textile industry must engage both with existing and new clients. It is no longer enough to innovate with materials; companies need to be creative in how they work with partners to achieve this with innovation labs proving to be an economic and flexible option.
Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London. She is a regular contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.