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Training and education for the high-tech textile industry

Advanced Textiles, Markets | December 1, 2017 | By:

Students at the Advanced Technology and Academic Center (ATAC), part of Great Bay Community College, are directed towards matching the needs of local advanced textile and composite manufacturers. Photo: Great Bay Community College.

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index (GMCI) report, the United States looks set to overtake China as the world’s most competitive manufacturing nation within five years. The textile industry is a significant part of that repositioning in its moves to bring manufacturing back to North America. It is not enough, however, to bring manufacturing back; we must also ensure that we have the skills needed to meet the demands of an increasingly high-tech industry. We need to address a number of challenges in attracting and maintaining a highly skilled workforce. There are a number of such initiatives, both local and national, as well as strategies being employed in Canada, Europe and Australia to meet similar challenges. 

Government support

Attracting and keeping a skilled workforce is a global concern, particularly in an industry that by its nature continues to develop technically at a very rapid rate. Japan, for example, has long nurtured a strong relationship between government and industry that has helped to support employers and employees during periods of transition. The role of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in the textiles industry can be traced back to the Korean War in the early 1950s, when MITI introduced its first adjustment policy to help counteract falling textile prices. 

A series of Industrial Relocation Promotion Laws followed from the late 1970s, aimed at promoting high-tech and knowledge-intensive industry clusters. (This stemmed from the same idea as traditional textile clusters, where the yarn producer is located close to the dye house, weaver, etc.) In his report The Evolution and Structure of Industrial Clusters in Japan (World Bank Institute, 2001), Hideki Yamawaki found that of 115 textile firms surveyed, 79.1 percent preferred to provide on-the-job training for workers, with only 5.2 percent recruiting outside the cluster. The author attributed this to the high level of specialization within textile companies. 

On the job

On-the-job training isn’t always practicable, for reasons that range from a region’s industrial culture to resourcing and costs. Vocational training provides one alternative; its great benefit is that it can provide knowledge and skills that are transferrable and that demonstrate a willingness to learn, but standards can vary enormously. “Vocational students in America spend less than a quarter of their time in actual workplaces—while their peers in Switzerland, Norway and Denmark spend half to three-quarters of their schooling in work placements,” says Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way (2014).  

Great Bay Community College in Rochester, N.H., is one of the success stories in providing skills and training that matches local industry needs.  The award-wining Advanced Technology and Academic Center (ATAC) provides a combination of technical and composites manufacturing facilities, alongside academic courses. The aim is to match the needs of local job seekers with those of local manufacturers such as Albany Engineered Composites (AEC), which also has its own in-house Research and Technology (R+T) department.

What do women want?

The second technical textile trade show that I attended was in the mid-1990s. I was surprised that some of the manufacturers remembered me from my first conference; then I realized that it was because I was one of the very few female delegates there. The situation has obviously improved since then, but more women do need to be engaged in the industry, and that process should start while girls are still in school.

Girls’ education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is of such concern that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has this year announced its first symposium on the topic. The organization puts the questions simply: “Why does the gender gap exist and how can it be addressed?” For industries like smart and advanced textiles, these questions must be asked, and lead to shifts in thinking throughout the entire educational curriculum. The U.S. Office of Innovation and Improvement ( is sufficiently concerned about the importance of STEM subjects in general that it has introduced a number of measures designed to improve access for all students, including a Teacher Incentive Fund, 21st Century Community Learning Centers and a Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program.

Education, efficiency, automation

Keeping pace with technological change is an ongoing logistical challenge for colleges and universities. Industry partnerships play a vital role in helping to achieve this, with relationships nurtured and developed over many years, taking on many different forms. The newly launched Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute (RFT-MII) offers workforce training and education backed by a combination of government agencies, academia, industry organizations and venture capital. This meshes with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) broader remit as a “National Fabric Innovation Network poised to deliver revolutionary advances across the entire fabric supply chain.” In Germany, the ITA Academy at RWTH Aachen University provides training alongside research, with strong industry links built up over many years to ensure access to the latest technological developments.

External trends and developments have definite impacts on the high-tech textile industry. Some, such as changing demographics, are market-directed. Others are more focused on the way that fibers and fabrics are produced. Industry 4.0 and sustainability are two examples of these influences.  

In Industry 4.0, machines are being brought together, physically and electronically, to create greater efficiencies in production and supply chain management. Different ways of working are essential, a need being addressed in two main ways at present. The first happens before the factory is built, so workers can see how best to undertake tasks and move around the factory before the final layout is decided. 

In the movie The Founder (2016), a basketball court and chalk are used in one scene to test the best configuration for the kitchen and service area of McDonald’s before the fast-food chain was launched in the 1950s. 

Instead of chalk, today we have Augmented Reality (AR), with tools such as Siemens Digital Enterprise Suite to simulate the SpeedFactory and optimize efficiency before building commences and machines are positioned. Fraunhofer IEM (Institute for Mechatronic Systems Design) sees AR functioning both in the planning of space and technology placement but also through the entire production lifecycle in providing faster and more efficient access to data for quality control, maintenance and servicing. Training is offered by the institute (based in Germany) worldwide through the use of AR.

The impetus toward a more sustainable, smart and advanced textile industry demands that employees (as well as employers) at all levels of production, from design to labeling and distribution, acquire a level of environmental knowledge. As more data becomes available, the complexity of this knowledge is increasing, as is the need for people who have a combined expertise in both high-tech textiles and sustainability.  And while information on sustainability materials and systems is being incorporated into existing curricula and training modules, there is also a great need for shorter, more intensive information dissemination. 

The Gherzi Group, a global management consulting and engineering company headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, and Chemnitz University of Technology, Chemnitz, Germany, have launched a Sustainable Textile School that promises to be an annual event running in September. The event brought together experts from academia, industry and NGOs addressing resources, production, chemistry, the supply chain and geopolitics. The ultimate goal is to establish a global textile engineering platform.  In a rapidly changing industry, much of the focus is on manufacturing efficiencies, technological advances, market changes and competition. An effective workforce is central to the realization of all of these areas, but without attracting people to the industry and keeping them interested and involved, it will be an uphill struggle. Training and educational opportunities are part of that process—particularly in creating the reassurance that jobs and career advancement prospects will exist tomorrow. 

Marie O’Mahony, an industry consultant and academic, is the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson, and visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported on trends in the U.S. workforce:

• Since 1985, the share of American workers who are union members has decreased about 50 percent.

• Most Americans work in the service sector.

• Almost 15 million U.S. workers are self-employed.

• Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce.

• Women earn 83 cents on the dollar compared with men (the gap narrows among younger workers).

• The wage gap between workers with and those without college degrees is the widest in decades.

• A much smaller percentage of U.S. teens works today, compared with earlier decades.

  In contrast, more older Americans are working.

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