Reclaiming the industry

Published On: October 1, 2014

Overall trends in the once-again growing specialty fabrics industry.

After years of struggles, there’s optimism in the U.S. textile industry. The recent recession took its toll, but growth was already flagging from increased off-shore production and a shrinking skilled workforce, among other things. While the textile industry is many faceted and complex, it’s safe to say that overall, the industry is looking up.

This article called on experts to help identify trends and provide insight into changes in the specialty fabrics industry today, and the challenges associated with them.

1. The rebirth of the U.S. textile industry

By Dr. David Hinks

There has been much discussion in recent months about a resurgence of the U.S. textile industry. There are clear signs of not only sustained growth in certain segments of the U.S. textile enterprise, but also a new strategic focus by a growing number of retail companies sourcing more in the U.S. than they have in the past.

The College of Textiles at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has been tracking the rapid changes in the textiles industry, in part through its extensive network of industry partners and advisory boards, which include broad repre`sentation from technical textiles to apparel manufacturing and retail, as well as textile-related industries such as the polymer and colorants industries.

While many observers note the decades of decline in textile and apparel manufacturing jobs (the peak of the textile manufacturing employment was 1948, with about 1 million jobs, and the peak of apparel manufacturing employment was 1973, with about 1.4 million), U.S. textile productivity increased dramatically during much of the latter half of the 20th century due to fiber innovation and technology investment. And while free trade agreements accelerated offshoring in apparel sourcing, there is now a renewed emphasis in sourcing more products in the U.S. and region.

This is in part due to the need for segments of the retail and apparel industry to respond more rapidly to consumer preferences than in the past, hence requiring more production closer to the U.S. market. When combined with substantially lower relative energy costs in the U.S. compared with many parts of the world and major technology advancements leading to less reliance on labor—in part due to research and innovation emerging from research universities—the U.S. is becoming an increasingly exciting and viable option to those retailers who have focused on sourcing offshore. A further reason for a renewed focus in onshoring is a renewed interest in consumers buying American, which is actively encouraged by the retail industry.

A number of industry segments have been experiencing significant growth since 2009 (fibers, yarns, threads, fabrics, apparel and textile products, such as carpet) after declines in previous years. The nature of the growth areas appears to be changing quite rapidly. A substantial amount of growth is in performance and technical textiles, such as nonwovens and composites. This is in part driven by rapid innovation by forward-leaning companies that invest in research and development.

In fact, some segments, such as exports of textile components, have experienced year-on-year increases in certain states since the early 2000s. North Carolina leads the nation in the production of textile components and has seen substantial growth in the nonwovens sector.

This growth is mirrored by the rapid growth in graduates from the NCSU textiles college, especially over the last few years. The college currently has approximately 1,000 bachelor’s, 100 master’s and for the first time in its history just surpassed 100 PhD students this fall. Many of the PhD students are funded by NCSU’s Nonwovens Institute through its industry membership dues, which include approximately 70 industry members.

David Hinks is the new interim dean of the College
of Textiles at North Carolina State University.

2. Smart fabrics and products take off

Consumers—understandably—seem to be enamored of smart fabric innovations. “Meet George Jetson … his wife Judy …” Once the stuff of science fiction (and cartoons), smart fabrics are now gaining an increasingly larger portion of the textile product pie, which includes wearable products that incorporate electronics; materials and structures that sense and react to external environmental conditions and alter their state and functionality; and passive textiles that sense environmental conditions.

Worldwide growth rates for smart fabrics rose from $834 million in 2010 to $1.616 million in 2014 (projected), an annual growth rate of approximately 18 percent a year. The U.S. smart fabric market grew even more, rising from $270 million in 2010 to $700 million (projected) in 2014, an annual growth rate of 27 percent. The 2013 worldwide smart fabric and interactive textiles (SFIT) sales were dominated by the transportation market, which made up 40 percent of that figure, primarily because the data includes heated vehicle seats.

Government and military uniforms made up 21 percent of 2013 smart fabric sales, followed closely by industrial and commercial products at 20 percent. The industrial and commercial market includes workwear electronics for police, firefighters and construction workers for both safety and communication—and is expected to be a major market in the future. Physiological monitoring for consumer/retail (14 percent) and medical/health (5 percent )make up the remaining market share.

Nanotechnology, as a category within smart fabrics, has considerable potential for development of new materials for the textile industry. Research and development teams are already working to create military uniforms that change color to match the environment and lightweight bullet-resistant vests to monitor the wearer’s physiologic data, communicate automatically and react instantly to chemical and biological agents.

Also in development are smart nanomaterials that respond to injuries and deliver drugs and antibiotics, and sensors that can indicate the presence of cancer and blood clots.
New developments on the horizon include a soft polymer-based fiber woven into fabric, developed by Polytechnic School researchers in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The fabric has electrical properties that change depending on where it is touched. Finger movements—or swipes—can be logged and used to control air-conditioning or the volume on a radio. BMW has plans to install touchscreen fabric in the dashboard of its high-end models in 2015–2016. General Motors and aircraft manufacturer Bombardier also plan to incorporate the fabrics.

Advancements for smart textiles underground are being made as well. TenCate Geosynthetics, Pendergrass, Ga., developed the GeoDetect® system, the first sensor-enabled intelligent geotextile on the market to provide soil reinforcement, structural health monitoring and an early warning system that tracks changes in geostructures’ strain and temperature.

Opportunities accompanying the smart and interactive fabric market include enormous market growth potential and the opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises to collaborate. But there are weaknesses. The economics of production scale are difficult to attain, for one, and because of a lack of critical mass, production costs are high.

Device performance in many cases is insufficient at this point in development. However, the future of smart fabrics and its myriad applications is bright, with the military leading the way in developing products that can be adapted to commercial use.

Information in this section was provided by Jeff Rasmussen, market research manager at ATA.

3. New FR and AR standards enacted

Earlier this year, OSHA announced several changes to standard 1910.269, Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution standard. Several of the announced changes impact individuals who have to wear FR (flame resistant) and AR (arc resistant) workwear to protect them from the dangers of flames and electric arc. Enforcement by OSHA of these changes will start as early as October 2014 and continue during 2015.

The standard is almost 1,000 pages long—more than most employers will have the time to read. Hugh Hoagland, senior managing partner of e-Hazard Management LLC, Louisville, Ky., which provides electrical safety training, arc flash studies and electrical safety audits, and Rich Lippert, director of business development, protective market for Glen Raven Technical Fabrics LLC, Glen Raven, N.C., reviewed the document in an effort to help companies understand what the changes will mean for them.

“The language is more precise and specific than it was before,” Lippert says. “It goes a long way to eliminate and minimize opinions in terms of one aspect of our workwear. Before OSHA came up with these new standards, it was up to the employee to source the right gear. The new language in the standard states specifically that the employer must provide workwear for the employee when he/she is faced with these FR and/or AR hazards.” Lippert points out that while the previous standard mandated PPE (personal protection equipment) workwear depending on the hazards, the burden was on the employee to be sure he or she was properly outfitted. While many employers already provided proper workwear for their employees, some did not. Now the burden shifts onto the employers to know what workwear is needed and to supply it.

Industry impact, Lippert surmises, is that the new standard will cause employers to review work site hazards to ensure they understand exactly what the risks are and how they can be addressed with the proper workwear—and that will mean conducting a third-party safety audit. “As an employer, you don’t want to conduct the audit yourself,” Lippert says. “It’s best to hire a third-party company to do the risk site analysis. And based on that analysis, take the necessary steps to put your employees in the proper PPE.”

Read e-Hazard’s side-by-side comparison of the prior and current standards in “Side-by-Side Comparison: Prior Standard v. Final Rule Issued
April 11, 2014

4. High performance, but lighter weight

It’s no surprise that the demand for innovative lightweight fabrics continues to grow. If manufacturers could have a fabric that performs well and weighs less—why wouldn’t that be the fabric of choice?

“The reasons to pursue lightweight fabrics might differ, but the need for it is felt across the board,” says Joey Underwood, senior vice president of Safety Components Fabric Technologies Inc., Greenville, S.C. “Reducing weight improves fuel efficiency. It lightens the load and reduces work stress for warfighters and firefighters, and improves comfort for workers. No matter what the application, it is something that has incredible value.”

The U.S. military is driving many of the advances in lightweight fabrics in an effort to lighten the warfighter’s load. “Each of the U.S. military serve branch management shops is charged to seek out innovations in operational clothing and equipment,” says Manfred Young, military market product manager for Burlington, Greensboro, N.C. “Often the focus is on cost, durability and performance, yet there is the over-arching demand to reduce the burden that the warfighter must carry. Thus the performance textile innovator must balance weight and construction against performance and durability.”

Warwick Mills Inc., New Ipswich, N.H., is working on a variety of lightweight applications for protective gear, including developing chemical and biological tent materials that weigh 11 ounces, “which is very light,” says Jenny Houston, executive vice president of Warwick Mills. “The material has to act as a barrier plus be able to have all the performance of a tent outer shell. We developed it through a combination of weaving, coating, lamination and adhesion to deliver those properties.”

For PPE, Warwick is working on lightweight products for tropical wear that are insect repellent and offer antifrag properties to provide protection from debris that can come from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and grenades.

“The materials have a high cover factor to stop a mosquito from penetrating the skin and are also made of a high-tenacity yarn to offer frag protection, which is important for protection from IEDs, for example,” Houston says. “We’re six months into a developmental program for this and are very happy with both the lightness of the material and the frag protection.”

The recreational market—specifically for extreme sports applications that demand abrasion, cut and tear resistance—is often the added beneficiary of military textile advancements. “We leverage designs we’ve developed for NASA or the military and turn them into commercial products,” Houston says.

On the structures front, lightweight textile facades is a market segment that is seeing significant growth, according to Steve Fredrickson, national sales manager, Serge Ferrari North America. “One of our biggest markets right now is textile facades [mesh textiles used to “wrap” buildings to provide shade, airflow, cost savings and branding],” he says. “When you compare the weight of using fabric as opposed to metal for a facade, the structural difference needed is enormous, which is why lightweight facades are being used more and more. It’s true for awnings as well. The light weight of fabric awnings vs. metal is a real benefit—and the durability and longevity is not that much different.”

In general, the added benefit to lightweight fabrics is cost reduction. “If you can get the performance up, using less material, your costs go down,” Houston says. “Use less raw material and the product is less expensive.”

5. The sustainability challenge

Although people are generally in favor of “green” products and practices, it’s not a simple yes or no issue. One concern regarding sustainability is that the word lacks a shared definition. To one manufacturer sustainability may mean creating a biodegradable product, while to another it’s providing a product that is recyclable. How much energy is used to produce it comes into play as does what kinds of emissions result from the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, there are also some companies guilty of “greenwashing”—overstating a product’s or the company’s environmentally friendly practices. It’s not so surprising that sustainability can be a fuzzy concept.

As an example, Fredrickson points to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where materials were required to be recyclable. “Though materials were required to be recyclable, not all were,” he says. “Some were repurposed, which meant that they went downstream somewhere. Repurposed is not the same as recycled, and yet there are plenty of companies claiming that standard.”

Fredrickson expects to see legislation in Europe to deal with this some time in the near future (Europe added ISO standard 14021 in 1999 to address self-declared environmental claims) but he is not so optimistic about the U.S. “There’s nothing in the works right now to standardize sustainability domestically because manufacturers don’t want it,” he says. “They all want to be able to claim to be green, and until the specifier requires proof, it’s not going to change.”

Thanks to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED green building initiative, sourcing raw materials with recycled content will likely increase, Fredrickson says. “Because of the recycled content clauses in LEED, more and more people are looking for components to add to their products to meet those criteria.”

Aurora, Ill.-based textile-processing company, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc., has experienced a drastic drop in demand for its Weaves of Green™ line of 100 percent recycled polyester printable textiles. “We rolled the product out about five years ago, and it was extremely successful for the first year or two,” says Aurora’s president Robert Matz. “Over the past few years sales have plummeted. I think people just don’t want to spend the money for it.”

The cost of sustainability is a factor for wovens and nonwovens. “While sustainability is a topic of interest, many retailers and consumers expect sustainable products without having to pay more for them,” says Elisabeth Stanger, global director, business development, hygiene at The Lenzing Group, Lenzing, Austria, which supplies manmade cellulose fibers to the textile and nonwovens industry, including those used in disposable wipes.

“Looking at sustainability means looking at the raw material, the production process, the logistics and the disposal,” Stanger says. “Increasing awareness and pressure from the canalization [sewage waste system] caused the industry to be proactive and develop new flushability guidelines for MTT (moist toilet paper).” Edana and Inda, two international trade associations for the nonwovens and engineered fabrics industry, recently released new guidelines addressing both dispersion and biodegradability. Stanger points out that Lenzing’s TENCEL® fibers are wood-based, and certified biodegradable and home-compostable, and its short-cut fibers can be part of the sustainable solution for future products.

Consumer education is a critical factor for the success of sustainable products—for both wovens and nonwovens. For hygiene products, Stanger notes that consumers typically aren’t informed about the raw material in the products, and that legislation is lacking. “Many consumers wish to buy sustainable products,” Stanger says. “To do so, they need to be informed.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.