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Tomorrow's Textiles Today(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 09,2007)

Teutonic Textiles

 

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western consumers increasingly care about social and especially ecological sustainability

Textile and clothing professionals flocked to a German event that showcased the latest hi-tech textiles and apparel and cutting-edge research

Innovation was the name of the game at the Techtextil and Avantex trade fairs in Frankfurt, the bi-annual parallel showcase for groundbreaking textiles and garment technology.

Techtextil, which was established in 1986, is an international trade fair for all kinds of technical textiles and nonwovens (including agro-, building, geo-, industrial, automotive, medical and protective textiles).

Avantex, held for the first time alongside Techtextil in 2005, focuses on smart and intelligent apparel and presents developments ranging from the concept to the finished product.

The German event continues growing in line with the respective industries, the latest edition attracting more than 1,000 exhibitors and 23,200 trade visitors from 80 countries (up 7% on 2005).

Needless to say, picking the best of the 2007 crop was not easy for buyers, many of whom began by reviewing the innovation prizes awarded by a jury of international experts.

Imasol of Belgium, Setila SA of France and Courtaboeuf (also of France) won prizes for innovative apparel with their long-lasting, photo-luminescent textiles.

They jointly developed a fabric that absorbs any type of light and will emit light during a period of more than 12 hours when it is dark, encouraging a Paris-based fashion designer to shortly organise a show featuring photo-luminescent clothing.

"Our fabric is not only interesting for use as garments," Imasol general director Jean-Marc Viˆmnot claimed. "We noted interest from several other industries, like the interior design, building and car industries."

Two of the nine innovation prizes went to intelligent impact-protection textiles, including the Finnish Rukka/L Fashion Group Oy that developed a motorcycle suit that permits full movement but is fitted with a textile that suddenly becomes a solid shield at impact.

Similarly, a new material developed by American multinational Dow Corning Corp allows total freedom of movement, with the textile only becoming solid at the moment of impact.

This new textile is meant primarily as an alternative to hard armour, but doubtless commercial concerns in the sportswear and packaging industries will also be interested.

Military needs are definitely one of the main drivers of innovation in textiles and hi-tech clothing, along with "West versus Asia" competitive pricing and the trend towards sustainability.

One example of a military-driven innovation came from the Dutch TenCate group, which developed a new fabric with a camouflage print, made from flame-resistant cellulose fibres produced by Austrian company Lenzing.

This will be welcomed by the US military, which has decided to change to flame-resistant uniforms to give its combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan better protection from explosive materials.

These new uniforms have created great interest in Lenzing flame-resistant fibres among several other armies, including Canada, Germany and France.

Military uses aside, it is not hard to imagine the immense potential to be found supplying such esoteric markets as fire brigades, foundries and chemical companies.

In fact, Lenzing already can't keep up with demand despite urgently increasing its production capacity of Lenzing FR® fibres from 3,000 tonnes to 6,000 tonnes by the end of 2008.

Elsewhere, most European producers of technical textiles seem to believe that they have a safe lead on Asian competitors, both in terms of technology and marketing - in stark contrast to their colleagues who produce apparel textiles.

The prospect of the Chinese mainland's quota-free re-entrance on world markets in 2009 and Hong Kong's growing cost-competitiveness thanks to production on the mainland were not felt as a major threat.

This peace of mind was not, however, shared by all observers, with no less an expert than German Denkendorf Textile & Fiber Research Institute leader of Management Research, Professor Thomas Fischer, warning that Asian textile researchers more readily embraced ICT than their European counterparts.

"The European textiles sector is highly inventive, but in most cases, the time to market of new ideas is too long," he said, noting that the industry was dominated by SMEs that mostly do not master the principles of innovation management. "Many also lack the intellectual resources to act as valuable partners of big companies - for example in the automotive industry."

The latest figures also indicate that the hi-tech textiles and apparel fields were no longer the exclusive playground of European, American and Japanese companies.

Technical textiles exports from Germany, the global leader in the field, amounted to US$3.9bn in 2006, with Germany's share in world exports (12.5%) still higher than the US (10.8%) and China (8.8%).

But for how long, many asked, noting that Chinese exports of technical textiles are growing much faster (up 24% in 2006) than those of Germany (up 6.1%) and other countries.

Reflecting this trend, the Chinese mainland had 52 exhibitors at Techtextil 2007, Taiwan 20 and Hong Kong just two - namely Gobi Strategy (HK) Ltd and Eastsign Int'l.

Typical of the new breed of textile manufacturers, Gobi Strategy supplies micro-porous, breathable and waterproof fabrics for ski, golf and outdoor garments and offers tailor-made support.

Eastsign Int'l, meanwhile, is a research, manufacturing and marketing house for sign material and equipment, including the DingTec solvent ink-jet printer and Dingflex laminated vinyl and coated vinyl sign materials.

Their offerings stood strong against their more numerous Asian competitors, some of whom displayed products solely based on Asian R&D while others had acquired technical know-how from Western companies.

Shanghai Tanlon's polysulfonamide (PSA) Tanlontm fibre, which has remarkable anti-fire and high performance properties, was wholly developed on the Chinese mainland.

By contrast, Colotex Industrial, a Taipei-based producer of anti-odour and antistatic fabrics, cooperated with laboratories in Japan, Sweden and the US.

This may have been a clever move, as it enabled the company to shift quickly from the production of fashion textiles to that of hi-tech fabrics.

"In 2002, we were the first Asian company to launch fabrics made from silver-coated X-Static textile fibres," manager Lisa Chen of Colotex claimed.

Elsewhere, it was difficult to estimate how much of the "sustainable" processes and products at the 2007 show went beyond mere image-building.

Western consumers increasingly care about social and especially ecological sustainability, so textile and apparel producers are wise to integrate "sustainability" into their innovation strategy.

The German Denkendorf Institute gave some interesting guidelines displaying new products that were based on "bionic" (combining biology and technology) principles: self-cleaning fabrics, swimwear that doesn't become wet and fibre-binding material as strong and flexible as a reed were just some of the examples on display.

TEXT BY JOZEF DE COSTER