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DITF celebrates 100 years of textile innovation

Germany’s textile research institute drives developments that extend worldwide.

Advanced Textiles, Markets | June 1, 2021 | By: Marie O’Mahony

The German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) is the largest textile research center in Europe, with roots that go back 100 years to the first German Research Institute for the Textile Industry, established in Reutlingen in 1921. As the institute expanded to additional locations in Stuttgart and Denkendorf, it merged in 1979 to become DITF as we now know it. 

Celebrating a centenary, DITF as it was in 1921 and today. All photos: DITF.

The initial aim of supporting industry with independent research has grown with the institute. As DITF enters its second century, and the pace of technological innovation accelerates, it is worth reflecting on the ethos behind a research institute that has developed with and indeed helped to drive many advancements in fiber and fabric.

Industry and society

“DITF is the innovation engine of the German economy, especially for technical textiles and medical textiles,” says CEO Dr. Götz T. Gresser. “We are open to new ways of bringing textile ideas and technologies quickly and efficiently to industry and society.” 

This duality can be traced back to the very early days when new developments focused on chemistry and the then-new synthetic fibers alongside a training program for workers. The organization’s achievements continue with award-winning chemistry that includes several Show Stopper award winners from Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) Expos, with the most recent in 2019 for the development of a transparent security ink that offers product security through digital printing that is invisible to the eye. 

DITF’s research and expertise have grown in almost all areas of textiles, from fibers to weaves, knits, nonwovens, composites and, of course, in digital technologies. The meaning of “social benefit” has itself transformed since DITF was first established, and the institute’s activities reflect this goal as it now continues training that has extended to include cooperation with academia, most notably the University of Stuttgart. For example, finding solutions to medical issues addresses the needs of both society and industry. Innovations produced here are wide-ranging, from wound dressings and implants capable of releasing therapeutic agents, to polycaprolactone (PCL)-based barbed sutures, to cell scaffolds for regenerative medicine.  

DITF’s polar bear pavilion project was guided by the principles of biomimicry. Mimicking the animal’s ability to harness and store energy, the building was designed with an outer layer, an absorbing layer and inner insulation, succeeding in its aim to collect and store solar energy until needed.

Industrial Revolutions 1 to 4

After the first Industrial Revolution arrived in Europe, a school opened in Reutlingen in 1855 to teach skills in spinning, weaving, knitting and finishing techniques. This became the basis for what is now DITF. 

The institute is now embracing the fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0). The Digital Microfactory coordinated by DITF brings together a completely networked and integrated value chain from design to finished garment. 

The impetus for this has come from the apparel industry in particular as it looks to establish a nearshore, reduced and more transparent supply chain. Within the digital advances, specific challenges are being addressed by scientists at DITF. The digital twin, for example, produces a computer-assisted (digital) model that connects the physical and digital worlds to achieve efficiencies in time and materials. 

A further example is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in problem-solving, data gathering and analysis. This includes the classification of 3D body scans for specific groups to allow for better garment design and fit. 

As DITF enters its second century, it seems appropriate that the nature of the institute itself is undergoing change with the additions of the ITV Denkendorf Product Service GmbH (2001), the High Performance Fiber Center (2014) and the Micro Factory Living Lab (2020), which is focused on working with industry partners to identify new business models, sustainability and production strategies around Industry 4.0.

Partnering with industry

Located in the Baden-Württemberg region, DITF is situated in the heartland of the German automotive industry, and both industries have grown alongside one another. This has been to their mutual benefit, with the industries partnering in projects such as ARENA2036 (Active Research Environment for the Next generation of Automobiles 2036), the largest and leading research platform for vehicles in the country. The high-performance capability of textiles affords the opportunity to innovate and bring benefit to the automobile industry, the environment and society. 

The LeiFu charging coil for contactless induction charging is an example of this and also demonstrates how traditional textile techniques can be utilized to produce high-tech solutions. In this technology, embroidery is used to attach the charging coil to a textile substrate that is then transformed into the completed induction load module using vacuum-assisted resin transfer molding (VARTM). 

The transnational nature of the textile industry and partnerships is growing in importance for DITF, with regular participation in trade shows such as IFAI Expo. The increasing complexity of the textile industry and the markets that it serves make both national and international partnerships vital. International partnerships take longer to establish, but with DITF’s 100 years of expertise, the organization understands textiles and the importance of taking the time to get things just right. 

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

SIDEBAR: Recycling carbon fiber

Recycling technical fibers in a nonwovens line from DILO Machines GmbH, financed by the state of Baden-Württemberg. Both the nonwovens and modernized pilot plant have been designed with the capability of producing conductive carbon fiber.

The ability to recycle carbon fiber is increasingly important for the composites industry where the fiber offers a lightweight alternative to metal for automotive and other applications. The expectation is that composites should achieve circularity that includes end-of-life recycling. The growing popularity of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastics (CFRP) has created a need for the recycling of carbon fibers. For industry, this must be achieved in a way that is both environmentally and financially efficient, which means recycling to scale. 

The German Institutes of Textiles and Fiber Research Denkendorf (DITF) has commissioned a nonwovens production line from DILO Machines GmbH that is financed by the state of Baden-Württemberg. As a special feature, there is the possibility to produce after the carding machine either a nonwoven by means of a cross lapper and a needling machine or alternatively a sliver for the production of high-oriented semi-finished products like yarns. Both the production line and modernized pilot plant have been designed with the capability of processing conductive carbon fiber. Suitable technologies for processing recycled carbon fibers can be explored on the industrial nonwovens line.

Textile semi-finished products using recycled carbon fibers (rCF) are obtained by combining rCF fiber flocks with matrix staple fibers. These are fed into a carding process producing an intermediate product needed for nonwoven and yarn production, the card web of preorientated rCF and matrix fiber. For nonwoven production the card web is doubled by means of a cross lapper and transformed into a nonwoven using a needle punching machine. To produce high-oriented hybrid yarn the card web is transformed into a sliver. This is stretched and fed into a hollow spindle spinning machine where a matrix filament yarn is wrapped around the yarn core drawing and compacting the sliver into a staple fiber yarn. This can be used in composite materials, with tests showing good results in a PA6 matrix with a fiber volume content of up to 50 percent. 

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