Technical textiles: from cotton to carbon

Megan Ronayne examines the evolution and competitiveness of the UK textiles industry.

UK Textiles Stock ImageThe making of textiles is one of the oldest forms of manufacturing. The importance and growth of the industry spun from its role of fulfilling everyday human needs, such as clothing for body protection and agriculture.

The UK textile industry was at the heart of the first industrial revolution and at its peak, in 1973, employed some 851,000 workers. Since then, the sector has suffered from a strong increase in competition from low-cost economies: output has fallen by 68% and the number of employees by 90%.

Today, the UK textile industry comprises three main product categories: household goods, clothing and fashion, and textiles.

A majority of the production of household goods and clothing has moved offshore to low-cost economies. But some producers of traditional textiles have remained resilient by engaging in the advanced manufacturing segment of the textiles industry, namely technical textiles.

Textiles Asto Business School PQ - Oct 2016Technical textile products are advanced materials that are embedded in other products as intermediate components.

Firms in this sector are engaged in a near-constant search for new ways in which textiles can be used. For example, medical textiles can be embedded within the human body in the form of textile stents to repair damaged blood vessels by promoting in-tissue growth.

Other end-user markets and industry sectors benefitting from innovation in technical textiles include: automotive; composite materials; industrial filtration; performance workwear, and technical/smart garments.

Oddly enough, using textiles for applications other than clothing and furnishing isn’t an entirely new concept; with evidence that the Romans used woven fabrics to stabilise marshy ground for road building.

Nevertheless, it was the coming together of the textile and chemical industries from the late 19th century onwards that drove the real advance of technical textiles. The blend of these two technologies created new chemical finishes and artificial fibres: synthetics, acrylics and nylon.

Nylon was commercialised in 1939 for womens’ hosiery. However, its properties of high strength, elasticity and resistance to moisture meant it was quickly channelled into alternative applications, such as military parachutes.

Sewing Machine Textiles Fashio Stock
Today, the UK textile industry comprises three main product categories: household goods, clothing and fashion, and textiles.

Textiles competition

Since the 1980s, the number of firms that entered into the production of technical textiles increased by 57.5%, driven by the rise in price-based competition from low-cost producers, which undermined the competitiveness of firms producing non-technical textile products.

As the managing director of one medium-sized company put it, “Cheap foreign competition was an issue 10 to 15 years ago. We had to get out of those garment-making markets… if you’ve got a high labour element, the standard woven webbing just doesn’t raise enough revenue, you need to be able to add more value to it.”

In this way, UK textile manufacturers successfully responded to changes in their competitive dynamics by transformation to technical textiles.

However, low-cost competitors are now catching up; Asia’s textile industry is following a similar process to that of the UK in the 20th century and is beginning to move up the value chain by producing technical textile products.

A firm starting point is defining an effective innovation and technology strategy.
UK technical textile firms have had to develop competitive strategies that cannot be imitated by competitors.

In order to thrive and maintain their manufacturing systems in a high-cost location, UK technical textile firms have had to develop competitive strategies that cannot be imitated by competitors.

Servitization

UK technical textile firms are retaining their edge through services such as customisation, co-innovation, flexibility in production and logistics, and services ‘wrapped around’ products, chiefly aftercare.

Aftercare services include after-sales maintenance for the life of the product, supported by manufacturers who carry out regular technical servicing of their components.

One commercial manager told me his weaving company’s service offering has been welcomed by their clients, “Our products provide a technical reinforcement to a customer’s process… our technical team are often on [the customer’s] site, and they’ve been running trials to check the rheology [properties, or viscosity] of the chemical reactions [on a material], so we offer a sort of service of making sure our products fit inside a customer’s process.”

Textiles Asto Business School PQ2 - Oct 2016Each technical textile component is custom-made to fit within a customer’s product or process. Services are therefore inherent to the product, in terms of technical support, to ensure the technical textile component is performing and meeting customers’ final requirements either in a final product or a whole process.

Promoting excellence

Servitization offers companies the chance to negotiate long-term relationships with their customers and now the level and range of services offered creates competitive differentiation and distinction between firms.

Expertise in providing service is also increasingly determining the economic value of UK manufacturing firms. The Advanced Services Group, based at Aston Business School (Aston University), is a centre of research excellence on advanced services and servitization.

The centre provides support to large and small-sized manufacturing companies to develop services-led strategies. It utilises technology and gamification, through a series of serious games, to accelerate the transformation of the manufacturing sector.

The Advanced Services Group has an international benchmarking survey, which evaluates your industry position in delivering services, and can be found here.

Email: m.ronayne@aston.ac.uk