Mutual benefits

January 22nd, 2018 / By: / Featured

From small startups to global corporations, academia and business forge alliances.
A conductive ink pattern has been heat-laminated with thermoplastic polyurethane on a knit fabric. These structures are being explored for low-cost integration of electronics on textiles, including methods on integration of hard-type device components, such as light emitting diodes (LEDs), resistors and capacitors. Photo: Amanda Padbury.

Just days ago, VF Corp. and North Carolina State University (NC State) announced a strategic, multi-year partnership to “support student development at NC State and advance apparel and textiles innovation within VF,” the company says. It will also bring $1 million to the campus in the form of a gift from the VF foundation to the NC State Foundation, and give the VF Corp. a daily presence in the university’s new research center, the Centennial Campus. (See “NC State, VF Corp. announce new partnership.”)

According to Scott Deitz, vice president, public affairs, VF Corp., industry and academic partnerships are “an essential part of doing business today.” However, this relationship comes with a learning curve. “Nobody went to school for this, so it requires a commitment of time, passion and focus,” he says. “Our point of view is that this is a long-term journey. We are making a commitment to NC State, to academia, to the students, and we are going to fulfill our end of the obligation, understanding that it takes time and money.”

The talent pool

Although larger commitments such as VF’s are newsworthy, corporate and academic alliances generally aren’t new. HanesBrand Inc. has had a long relationship with NC State’s College of Textiles and is a great example of how a company can benefit from its relationship with a university. According to Jesse Jur, associate professor, Textile Engineering, Chemistry & Science. “They’ve been able to use us as a research arm because we have a research expertise that HanesBrand can leverage that’s very specific to their company.”

In return, NC State is one of the company’s primary recruiting locations. “They sponsor events for students, they are constantly engaging the student population—they’re involved in many aspects,” Jur says.

Associate professor Sonja Salmon has been the industrial partnerships manager at NC State’s College of Textiles for just a few months, leaving the business world after 20 years to take the university appointment. She sees significant benefits on both sides. For example, the school has about 150 companies participating in continuing education classes for industry professionals. “To get updated on the latest,” says Salmon, “or learn the basics for those who don’t have a background in textiles,” she says. The educational component goes both ways, with students learning from industry mentors, as well.

Deitz says continuing education helps people who have been in the business for a long time to stay on the leading edge of the industry, whether it’s in business management, navigating a multi-cultural environment, or working with generational characteristics.

Companies also benefit from having access to talent. “[It’s] educating and preparing the professionals of tomorrow to be able to work at VF or at our suppliers’ businesses in such a way that they’re successful,” he says. “The more appropriately prepared they are, the better we are. We have a choice to make as a company. We can be laissez-faire, or we can help them grow. We’re investing in talent that comes back in many ways to us.”

The lines between academic and real-world training are strategically blurred for Drexel University students, who do “co-ops” as part of their training. This is a six-month period of working in industry, which is a requirement to earn a degree. In fact, Genevieve Dion, director of Drexel University’s Center For Functional Fabrics says that engineering students do three co-ops in the course of their education.

Wider participation

Things are changing in terms of research and innovation,” Dion says. “We’re starting to look at grand challenges, and we’re looking at more than one discipline to solve problems. … You can design a really good garment, but if you want to imbed technology into it, you need materials expertise, engineering, systemic integration and so forth.”

Dion says that the ability to mix expertise is a great advantage to industry. “You may not have everyone under one roof with a startup, for example. Our centers can work together. AFFOA [Advanced Functional Fabrics of America] wants to bring manufacturing back to this country. I don’t think just one center can do this.

It’s an exciting time for making again! We want to have an end-to-end facility where we can iterate and help innovation,” says Dion. She points out that the Center for Functional Fabrics works with many disciplines and collaborates with designers, engineers, doctors and sociologists.

“Different areas of expertise think about different things. Every single field has something to say, something to bring. That’s why it has to be a very agile network,” she says. “To create meaningful products, I call it. It’s hard, but it’s really important.

“I see this area of textiles as a new industry. It has gaps of workforce, materials, standards, systems integration … We have to think about ways to offer a customized way of working with them, so the model has to be agile, depending on who comes through the door.”

Drexel, an AFFOA partner, has also made a significant announcement recently. It now boasts the only Fabric Discovery Center outside of Massachusetts. “This fits very well into the mission here to make new functional fabrics a reality,” she says.

Small or global

Both universities are open to a range of partnerships that represent companies from small startups to large, global corporations, and within that range, their partners have a variety of interests and problems to solve. One startup may need to build a prototype but doesn’t have the facility to do it; another might not have an invention yet.

“Everyone comes with a different set of criteria. What’s the recipe, the process?” Dion asks. “We figure out where it’s mutually beneficial to work together.”

Larger companies can use the Drexel’s facilities to “spend some time in residence to better understand some aspect of textiles, fabrication technology or something else—some of the basic research that could be done with some of the materials they have, so they can scale up,” says Dion.

“We can address some of the basic research aspects, all the way to being more focused on trying to develop a fabric,” she says. “We think about how we can work at the basic level, but we can find a way for a company if they’re more interested in exploration.”

NC State also offers a comprehensive approach. “We can go all the way from extruding a fiber to cutting and sewing a final product. Because we have that infrastructure, companies come to us for service projects, perhaps to get a prototype made. Many companies interact with us in that way,” Salmon says.

The entire Centennial Campus at NC State, which she calls “a grand vision” is a collaborative industry and academic environment, with more than 70 companies maintaining offices there.

A small company can benefit from participating with the college in other ways, too, such as its consortia, including The Nonwovens Institute, which is funded by industry. “This structure allows even competitor companies to come together and fund some fundamental research,” Salmon says. “They emphasize that this should be pre-competitive research so all benefit.”

Furthermore, Jur says NC State can be “very fluid” between projects. “We’re able to turn one project on, turn one off, and we’re able to put graduate students on for the length of time necessary,” he says. “It’s difficult for an established company to do this—to look and think like a startup company might act and think.”

Broad and deep connections

Although companies may have close and direct partnerships with a university, they may also provide indirect financial support. One example is NC State’s association with the North Carolina Textile Foundation, established by textile industry leaders many years ago. “They recognized the need to support the education of their workforce, which is the foundation’s mission,” Salmon says.

At NC State, workforce support can reach all the way back to high school-aged students. Its Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP) targets high school students to make them aware of the college’s programs. “Companies have said they want to diversify their work force, so they need to reach out to pools of people who may not have thought about going to college before and help them apply for scholarships,” Salmon says.

Jur is also co-director of the Senior Design Capstone Project, which runs with industry sponsorship. Industry, however, does not call the shots; rather, it comes to this program for undergraduates with a problem for them to solve over its two-semester course. “The students have to go through and understand the IP space, background literature, establish criteria for what would be project success and create prototypes to offer a solution,” Jur says.

The company that posed the initial problem may or may not use a solution developed in the class, but that’s not necessarily the point. The number one reason companies participate is to understand a new product space. “The company is going to learn something about their existing products, too, and have access to supply chains they haven’t had,” he says. The close association also offers another close association with students—and the future workforce.

This takes on added significance for a large, global corporation, such as VF, which operates in 170 countries. “We have more than 40 languages spoken in our company,” Deitz says. “The marketplace is changing; the workplace is changing. We have 65,000 associates around the world. These academic partnerships help us cross these multi-cultural and multi-lingual bridges.”

Managing expectations

It’s not always a straight line in starting something and ending something,” Deitz says, which describes, in short, the challenge of these academic and industry partnerships.

The greatest challenge is figuring out the expectation and making sure that both partners can work hand-in-hand, says Dion. Working in an academic environment can require an adjustment for many businesses. Salmon agrees that, “expectation management is key.”

Part of that is the pace at which work can be accomplished. “There’s more pressure [for a company] to come up with the next product faster. It becomes more and more compressed, which goes opposite to the usual academic timeline,” she says.

“We need to be very clear: this is research,” Jur says. “You have to think about it as a hypothesis, how or why something might be constructed. The project is to see that through to fruition and help the company see that.”

On the other hand, it’s a school, and students need to complete a course of study. “If students are involved, they have to have continuity in their research program and finish their degree,” Salmon says. “It might take a bit longer – but in the end you end up with a potential hire.”

Another challenge, says Jur, is moving beyond the basics and preparing students to be problem solvers. “Most of our class work is teaching fundamental principles, but the application into practice is something that’s required for them to be successful in the industry. … We have to train these students how to use their fundamental knowledge in solving open-ending problems.” That’s what’s exciting about the Capstone Project, he says. “You never know which way it’s going to happen.”

A link to the future

Deitz is quick to point out the unique nature of VF’s relationship with the university, and that NC State staff and faculty are not VF employees. “We trust the relationship. We’ll adjust the relationship and the process over time. We’re all in.”

“The College of Textiles is a critical link to the future of textile companies in terms of the knowledge-based research that we do and the education that we provide for the next employees at the company,” Jur says. “These textile partnerships haven’t been established as long as other industries. The fact that companies and the industry are seeing these partnerships and the College of Textiles is open to these, it’s a great sign.”

Dion says she’s seen a lot of products come and go in the last 10 years, but she thinks it’s time to look at why that is. “There’s enough desire to create the functional textiles of the future … to understand all the grand challenges to create not just prototypes, but real products that will sustain use. The best way is to understand what the market pool is, what the need is, and to work with industry to really deliver,” she says. “We’re on the cusp of being able to do amazing work.”

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at jlpreus@ifai.com.