Unexpected demand, raw material price volatility, market fluctuations and other factors have created a stressful scenario for the commodity textiles sector. In countries like India, where textile exports contribute significantly to export income, such volatile situations create a panic in the entire supply chain. Solutions, in part, lie in enhancing the availability of raw materials at competitive prices, improving the value of commodity products and developing advanced textiles. But these require investing in research and development.
In developed economics, many end user products are developed by small- and medium-scale enterprises. Established research programs like SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer), and by federal agencies such as the U.S. Dept. of Defense (DoD) the National Science Foundation (NSF) and he U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) have led to the development of many functional textiles. Certain “blue-sky” projects, which were ahead of their times, such as wearable smart textiles, were funded by U.S. government agencies that have a history of supporting research in high-tech markets, including medical textiles, for example.
Research’s four “legs”
Picture an enterprise as a table standing on four research “legs:” basic, applied, survey/feedback-based, and translational. It is understood that basic research is fundamental and needed. Investments in this type of research are long term and pay off over time. Government agencies and foundations can take the responsibility to support such research early on in the process, during the hypothesis stages. But major corporations and public sector undertakings, too, need to invest in hypothesis-based and fact-finding research.
Applied research, based on a need to solve a particular problem faced by stake holders in a specific field, or to work on mission-linked research, pose immediate opportunities for small and medium entrepreneurs.
The fourth research “leg” is translational. This is the level of research that leads to the commercialization of viable products for the targeted marketplace. This part of the research process is also positioned to promote job growth—including for better paying jobs. In terms of IT, biotech and pharma markets, startups that evolve out of translational research from academic and research laboratories have resulted in global job growth. In the advanced textiles sector, and defense and aeronautics, research has given rise to many startups that have evolved into small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs).
Being driven by the mantra to grow, startups are nimble enough to interact with outside entities, such as academia and federal laboratories, to convert their ideas into commercial realities. The advanced textiles sector provides many examples of startups that are keen on interacting with academia to translate ideas to the marketplace.
“Many micro, small and medium companies have little resources to invest in R & D,” says S. K. Nanjappan, managing director of Coimbatore-based Kanakalakshmi Mills, Pvt. Ltd (KLM). “Academic institutions also do not come out of the old knowledge what they have had for years together, and doctoral programs are not always bringing out worthwhile innovations.”
This industry is developing heavyweight cotton fabrics that go into making high-tech abrasives. KLM encourages active industry-institute interaction to develop high-tech textiles.
Economic analysis should also be part of the research process, as many inventions fail due to the lack of costing and effective marketing. “Despite conducive ecosystems for innovation and entrepreneurship, most of the innovations stop with making of prototypes and remain within the universities’ campuses or stop with the patented document,” says Poongodi Bhupathy, assistant professor, Business School, Coimbatore-based Kumaraguru College of Technology.
Emerging research areas
Corporate laboratories, generally, have cut back their research programs in almost all fields. This offers enormous opportunities for SMEs, contract research laboratories, academic units and government research laboratories to collaborate, as well as to take contract research to speed-up the innovation pipeline.
In the non-conventional material science sector, some areas of exploration, which can lead to return on investment in short to midterm, are artificial intelligence, functional chemistries, nonwoven technologies and products, 3D weaving and printing, and bringing novel applications to 2D materials such as graphene.
Chennai, India-based Asthagiri Research Foundation is a good model of a private research laboratory that develops new natural products that can enable conventional textiles to be converted to advanced products. Some of its interesting outcomes include a product called Collar Klean used to remove dirt and oil from fabrics, and herbal extracts used in coatings on cotton textiles, for example.
“We have prepared more than 60 herbal extracts which can be utilized in the textile industry,” says Narasimhan Srinivasan, founding chairman of Asthagiri Research Foundation. As many governments are working diligently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the technical textiles industry has work to do in finding uses for sustainable materials in cost-effective ways.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can support the development of advanced consumer textiles, sportswear and defense textiles. “Combining AI and material science concepts can lead to temperature sensing chips integrated into lightweight clothing,” says Mohamed Suhail, research scholar at Tiruchirappalli, India-based Jamal Mohamed College. “The semiconductor industry is working on reducing the thickness of chips from 3 nanometers, which will be helpful for the textiles sector so the weight of clothing materials can further come down.”
AI based wearable textiles can enable athletes to better train and perform. “Sensor embedded sportswear such as yoga suits can help with better yoga postures and help with health and performance of sports enthusiasts,” says Dr. Prasanna Balaji, Dept. of Physical Education and Sports Sciences, Tiruchirappalii, India-based National College.
The importance of sustainability
Realistic sustainability goals must be developed as part of a research agenda. Greener technologies, and biodegradable and compostable raw materials and end products that are cost effective have to be introduced incrementally, at least, if not totally in the textiles sector. Technologies are available to consider in order to achieve this.
Research has led to continuous full-width atmospheric plasma treatments, which are environmentally friendly. Similarly, innovative ideas and products involving supercritical gases and fluids are worth investigating. These technologies provide functionalities that can lead to permselective materials that will provide new applications for textiles. Surface chemistry principles, metaloxide based catalysis, enzyme technologies, natural products and regional herbs can be investigated.
Moving forward, more interaction between organizations and academia is needed in translating cost-effective ideas into viable products in the marketplace. In terms of increasing the market share of non-commodity items, some policy interventions in terms of regulations, which help with improving the standard of living, have to be considered. Such policy interventions have worked in the past in the development of vehicle seat belts and airbags, for example.
More importantly, in growing economies more awareness of the benefits of using advanced textiles needs to be created. Industry and government together should encourage and enable consumers to adopt sustainable lifestyles and sustainable products. Increased awareness will help with more consumption of “greener” products, such as biodegradable wipes, and personal hygiene products using natural materials.
Overall, all stakeholders would benefit from a clearer focus on enabling the research sector to develop next-generation products that are cost effective, functional and sustainable.
Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.