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Textile Innovation #21 Innovation Newsletter

Innovation in fiber and textiles affects everything from packaging to wearable electronics to aerospace materials to the clothes we wear. In this month’s feature we take a look at how innovation is at work in textile companies that are drawing on the mechanics and properties of the natural world and on the critical needs of demanding customers like emergency workers and soldiers.

The porosity of a pinecone

The workings of nature have inspired radical change in fibers and textiles, as in just about every other field of enterprise. The 2014 textile Innovator of the Year, recently honored at the ITMA Future Materials Awards ceremony in Germany, is Veronika Kapsali, technical director at MMT Textiles. Kapsali, who earned her doctorate in biomimetic textiles, is the inventor behind the INOTEK™ biomimetic fiber. Biomimetics (from the Greek “bio” or life + “mimesis” is the study of the functions and mechanisms of living organisms, aimed at creating ways to mimic them with manmade processes, materials, and products. In this case, the inspiration came from the botanical structure of a pinecone.

According to the ITMA Future Materials Awards website, Kapsali’s new fiber “uses moisture in clothing microclimates to create a mechanical response for advanced moisture management.” In simpler terms, the moister a fabric made with INOTEK™ fiber becomes, the more air it allows to flow through it. Rather than swelling and becoming less permeable as yarns made from conventional fibers do, INOTEK™ fibers contract. As they do, the structure of the fabric loosens on a small scale to allow air in and get moisture out. Conversely, when conditions are dry, the fibers “open up like a pine cone” according to the company’s website, reducing the porosity and improving insulation.

This type of fabric is one of a growing list of Smart Fabrics and Interactive Textiles (SFITs) that change in response to an external signal, be it electrical, mechanical, thermal, chemical, or magnetic. Here’s another.

This type of fabric is one of a growing list of Smart Fabrics and Interactive Textiles (SFITs) that change in response to an external signal, be it electrical, mechanical, thermal, chemical, or magnetic. Here’s another.


Inhibiting something you don’t want—odor

Vancouver-based athletic clothing manufacturer Lululemon is currently marketing a clothing line called Silverescent. The fabrics used to make these workout clothes incorporate a special silver-infused yarn made by Noble Biomaterials. Called X-STATIC, the yarn capitalizes on the natural ability of silver to kill bacteria (the bacteria that causes odor). Garments made with fabrics that include X-STATIC are odor-protected for their life.

To get a handle on what that means for the consumer, take a look at this pretty remarkable video promoting the clothing line’s effectiveness. Lululemon has used the fabric in technical gear for men and women, as well as in men’s socks. Because of its popularity, Sports Illustrated reports that the company plans to roll it out into other casual and lifestyle clothing lines.


Protecting lives

TenCate Protective Fabrics of North America won the 2014 Textile World Innovation Award in honor of the company’s “long-established track record for solving customers’ problems by creating not just fabrics, but fabric systems that exceed its clients’ needs.” TenCate is the world’s largest manufacturer of protective fabrics for emergency responders and fire fighters as well as for end users in petro-chemicals, mining, and the military. It’s Defender™ M fabric, for example, is credited with reducing third-degree burns by 30 to 45 percent among troops affected by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The company’s roots date back to 1704, when it was founded as a textile trading company in Holland. Virtually any company that stays alive for more than 300 years has to reinvent itself at some point. As stated on TenCate’s corporate website: “In the past the company suffered under a production-dominant approach and operation. Craftsmanship was the linchpin. Even though it had all the required knowledge and skills in areas such as fibres, yarns, fabrics and finishing, the company was not sufficiently aware of how TenCate customers saw its products.” [emphasis added] TenCate calls it an “inside-out way of thinking.”

That’s not the case any longer, according to Mike Anderson, VP of Operations, who stated in a recorded interview that the company has redefined itself over the years. He said the company is always looking at new products and ways to protect people, in a market driven by the unfortunate fact that hazardous conditions are unfortunately growing around the world.

TenCate’s innovation process is customer driven, according to Anderson. He said the company has “a product innovation group that works diligently worldwide, talking to end users, trying to understand what our customers really are looking for—the next generation, new protection,” because the “protective market is changing every single day.”

“Innovation is key,” Anderson continued. “What we do every day is we’re looking at how our products can interact and how they can make a difference. This year we’ve come up with four or five new products.” Those include Millenia XTL a lightweight, more protective version of a fabric used for the outer shell of fire fighter protective gear. The innovation was driven by their customers’ need for not only protection but also comfort and flexibility. The company is also getting into new markets as well, for example creating new protective gloves for people who shoot guns.


Process innovation to handle complexity and drive sustainability

Of course product and process innovation must go hand in hand. Anderson says that the process innovation piece could be considered even more complex than the product innovation. Typical spinning plants run a few different yarns, perhaps one to three different fibers, making four or five blends. TenCate had to figure out how to successfully use almost 30 different fibers, creating hundreds of different blends. That greatly complicates the manufacturing process. Anderson credits the tremendous people at their plants for teaming up to devise manufacturing processes that not only handle the complexity, but aim at sustainability. All water is recycled, and TenCate has an award-winning land application purification process.

In the Summer 2014 issue of the company’s newsletter, Frank Spaan, corporate director of business development describes the big-picture view. “From a strategic perspective, we have a road map based on three main spear points for every development at TenCate. First of all it’s a matter of ‘sustainable, clean and smart production’ – therefore smart clean production with as little wastage as possible. In line or in combination with this, TenCate aims at (cheaply) producing smart materials with a highly distinctive capability and a higher added value through deploying new technologies. And lastly smart distribution to the market via partnerships and e-commerce is strategically important.”


Key takeaways

Whether you are in a textile-related industry, or any other industry, draw on a few key principles from the work and experiences of these textile innovators to guide your own approaches to innovation:

  1. Nothing new under the sun.Nature has figured out solutions and adaptations to just about every imaginable situation. Never forget to look to the workings of the natural world for ideas to solve problems in your field.
  2. Innovation is combining existing things in new ways.If you want your product to incorporate certain properties, don’t think only about brand-new technological solutions. Look for existing products and materials that already have those properties and see how they might be
  3. Nothing lasts forever.Think of that as especially true for well-established companies and business models. If you are not always thinking about the ways the world is changing, your company could be left in the dust. And its not only about your products; you have to be looking at the entire model for your extended enterprise including your supply chain.
  4. The customer is always right – so use “right-side-out” thinking.No matter how inventive your craftsmanship, the keys to success lie with what customers need and how they perceive your offerings.
  5. It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.Coming up with process innovations goes hand-in-hand with product innovations. Don’t neglect one for the other.

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