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Transforming inventions into innovation

Markets | February 1, 2013 | By:

New forums for entrepreneurial environments must be established in order to help transform inventions into innovations.

Historically the textile industry was the first sector that brought about the industrial revolution, and many world economies depended on the evolution of this industrial sector for their political power for a very long time. The textile industry can be credited with continuous innovations throughout its 350 years as a powerful global influence. Due to those innovations, the textile industry now comprises many different subsectors representing production of fibers, yarns and fabrics, dyeing and finishing, and other physical and chemical processes to achieve added value in the final products. The scientific and technological advances made in the textile and clothing sector during this period are unprecedented.

Innovation in materials, technology and product development is crucial for the textile and clothing industry for many reasons, including: sustainable growth of the industry, enhancement of productivity, production of highly functional textile products, and manufacturing of textile products by using environmental friendly production processes. Invaluable contributions are made each year by stakeholders in the supply chains and value chains comprising the fabric manufacturing processes. Many innovations are commercially introduced by fiber producers, textile machinery and component manufacturers, dyestuff and chemical suppliers, in-line and on-line quality control systems suppliers and in-house material handling suppliers. These innovations are available to all types of textile companies, including textile SMEs (small and medium enterprises), which make up a large percentage of the industry.

From innovation to output

Larger and technically stronger textile SMEs are in search of sourcing innovation not only within their own R & D departments but to an even greater extent in noncompetitive research projects in universities and research institutes, as well as in enterprising start-up companies. Globalized innovation sources are eradicating geographic boundaries between the supplier and user of application-driven knowledge. In the textile sector, large companies and companies with strong research budgets have been important for the growth of the textile industry, including the growth of small businesses, especially those in the technology area.

During the course of my business trips abroad, I have met many academic scientists who are frustrated with the lack of possibilities to commercially exploit new ideas generated in the course of their research. New knowledge is being continuously created in the laboratories of many textile universities and research institutes worldwide. The dissemination of this knowledge mostly takes place in the form of scientific papers presented in journals and at conferences. There has been a steady increase in patents issued to scientists working in the above laboratories, but it’s unclear to what extent these inventions have reached successful commercial development.

It’s debatable whether all these research establishments have the right kind of organizational structure and work environment to be capable of handling the commercial exploitation of new ideas. Textile research institutes and university departments should have an organizational structure capable of establishing suitable environments for their creative staff members. An invention made in an academic laboratory, if it has strong potential for becoming an innovative product or process at the manufacturing level, often requires either finding an industrial partner willing to take a license agreement with the university/institute, or requires the entrepreneurial inventor to temporarily leave the academic world and spend time in an entirely different work environment in order to lead the invention to commercial success. These types of knowledge transfer mechanism are currently missing in most academic research institutions.

Entrepreneurial environments

To achieve the best outcome from textile industry-textile research partnerships, it’s necessary to establish new forums for entrepreneurial environments capable of transforming inventions into innovations. In these forums, it’s possible to share new ideas and innovations from the bottom up. Today, billions of U.S. dollars are spent worldwide in government funded research projects at universities and academic institutions, resulting in a huge number of research papers being published annually in the field of textiles and clothing. Most of this research, however, is not innovation-driven; consequently we see only a limited number of new applications reach the industry as the result of these projects. Keep in mind that whereas invention is about formulation of new and unique ideas for products or processes, innovation is all about the practical development of inventions into marketable products and services.

To a large extent, the textile and clothing industry has been enriched by the industry’s own innovation-driven R & D; to my knowledge there are few examples of major innovations originating from the textile academic world. Yet textile research institutes worldwide make invaluable contributions toward developing national and international standards and carry out research work on vital environmental issues facing the textile industry. The results of these activities strongly contribute toward new innovations in textile materials and processes.

Knowledge and implementation

Innovation-driven R & D comes through knowledge development, science and technology, product development and entrepreneurship created at industrial and academic research centers around the world. There are many ways in which universities and research institutes involved in textiles can link with the textile industry. For example, they might become members of an existing science park in the regions where they are established, or get engaged in the building of new technology parks and business incubators in the field.

Participation in these types of forums would facilitate the transformation of knowledge into innovation by initiating the interaction between knowledge-creating scientists and potential industrial users in the process of technology transfer. Educational programs could be specifically designed for enhancing innovation, by providing support and services to assist specifically in the creation and early-stage growth of new businesses.

One of the most interesting development areas today, with very strong growth potential, is smart textiles and wearable systems. Further integration of micro- and nanotechnologies and flexible systems in textile material, aiming at the implementation of the e-textile paradigm, will result in sensing, actuating, communicating, processing and power sourcing seamlessly integrated into a textile. It’s a key future development area with a large number of potential applications and business opportunities. Promising results and prototypes have been developed by research teams in the U.S. and Europe, especially in the field of military clothing and health monitoring.

There have also, however, been strong barriers toward finding wider markets, and the exploitation process is slow, including a lack of both “killer applications” and industrial supply chain products. Quality, performance and safety standards are missing. The textile and clothing industries are not sufficiently engaged; on one hand there is little effort by textile companies to understand the microelectronics of the wearable systems, and on the other hand there is little effort by the electronics companies to understand the manufacture and use of textiles and clothing. As a result, issues of technical, user-oriented, social and commercial character still need to be resolved.

Future challenges relating to innovation in the global textile industry include the full realization of emerging technologies such as plasma technology, nanotechnology, micro-encapsulation technology and biotechnology, all of which provide strong tools for the textile industry to produce a wide range of added-value products in both commodity and more sophisticated product markets. To this end, however, both the technology developers and the textile industry need to work closely together. Much has been done by this partnership, but much remains to be done.

Prof. Dr. Roshan Shishoo, Shishoo Consulting AB, Sweden, is a recognized expert, author and speaker in the global textile industry.

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