Until the 1980s technological innovation in textiles was largely rooted in the chemistry of the raw materials. The boom in synthetic textiles continued until the early 80s; superpolymers mixed with natural fibres made more than half of the mass production. This type of innovation became commonplace and ceased providing a competitive advantage.
In 2004, a ‘Technology platform for the future of textiles and clothing in Europe’ was set up and identified three pillars to sustain the European textile industry for the next fifteen years:
1. Increased emphasis on the production of specialised goods with high added value
2. Increased R&D for new textile productions
3. A move away from production designed for mass consumption to product personalisation.
This reflection clearly marks the end of the mass production era and the need for radical restructuring towards niche markets constructed upon renewed innovation and technology breakthrough. Some examples are listed below:
Cleaner raw material
Biotechnological research has focused on finding biological solutions to remove impurities, scour the materials and make them suitable for the dyeing process. Today, the preparation and processing of natural fibres, before cotton and wool– is weaved, is based on chemical operations that are financially and environmentally costly.
Real time quality control
Fault recognition may be applied in the quality control of dyed fabrics. New observation applications, a kind of ‘artificial eye’ may monitor automatically textiles during the production process as the material flows by uninterrupted at rate of 100 metres a minute, detecting irregularities ‘in real time’, enabling any manufacturing faults to be corrected immediately.
A surprising discovery, made in botany in the 1990s found that the lotus plant, admired for the resplendence of its flowers and leaves, owed this property to the high density of minute surface protrusions. These protrusions ‘catch’ deposits of soil and grime, preventing them from sticking. When it rains, the leaf has a hydrophobic reaction. The water rolls around as droplets, removing grime as it moves. Reproduced for nanotechnological processes on the surface of woven fabrics, this self-cleaning property was developed as a technological innovation and patented under the name the Lotus effect®. It is used for specific niche markets, such as for sails or certain garments.
Chitin is an abundant biopolymer, whose structure resembles plant cellulose, is found in shellfish and the external skeleton of many insects. A particularly promising textile application is currently being studied at the University of Ghent (BE) that consists of developing chitin-based fibres to produce medical dressings that would help to reconstitute skin in serious burn cases, as well as providing an anti-bacterial barrier.
Integrating IT into textiles give the capacity to perceive selected aspects of their environment, reacting, for example, to differences in temperature, electrical or magnetic fields, lighting conditions or ambient colours. Depending on the stimuli, they can adapt by changing shape, insulation power, colour or elasticity. Attempts are being made to develop a new generation of ‘reactive’ fibres or fabrics with a ‘sensorial electronic conductivity’ that incorporate flexible and imperceptible nanofibres (of nickel, copper, silver, etc.). This textile intelligence can potentially generate a wide range of applications in many fields, such as sports, medicine, and the military sector.
Source: RTD Info, No 45, May 2005