Ready to wear: textiles among drivers of third industrial revolution

Tim Harper & Helen Yu

It is fascinating to look back a few years at the early predictions made about the impact of nanotechnologies. Coming off the dot-com boom, most commentators predicted major changes in technology, with nanotechnologies seen through the same high-tech lens as the Internet. Perhaps with 20-20 hindsight now, we should have looked more closely at an industry that has been at the forefront of every industrial change from steam power to globalization: the textile industry.

While the nanotech exhibit in London’s science museum is tucked away in a corner, the entrance is dominated by the huge steam engines that drove Britain’s industrial revolution, a revolution in which textiles played a major role. From John Kay’s flying shuttle in 1733 to the first synthetic dyes in 1856, the textile industry has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies. Perhaps this in part explains why, for the past several years, whenever anyone gives an example of nanotechnologies in everyday life, stain-resistant pants usually top the list.

We set out to look at the real impact of nanotechnologies on the textile industry – beyond the infamous nanopants – to the entire textiles value chain. Working with colleagues at London’s Queen Mary University Unit for Strategic Studies in Nanotechnology and colleagues at London College of Fashion, we were surprised by the results. We found that $13.6 billion worth of textiles using nanotechnologies would be on the market by 2007. Our recent report, “Nanotechnologies and the Textile Market,” predicts that this will rise to $115 billion by 2012.

Let’s take a look behind the numbers.

The textile sector has been radically altered once again by a combination of changing consumer needs, new technologies and globalization. A walk through any shopping mall shows just how far textiles have come in the last hundred years, with the dazzling array of colors, textures and finishes. The industry has come a long way from simply spinning and weaving.

Nanotech market research firm Cientifica predicts the value of nanomaterials in textiles will increase at an escalating pace over the coming years.
Click here to enlarge image

In a sector as broad as textiles not all markets are equally affected. In a market such as clothing, where price is a key driver, nanotechnologies will not have a major impact. Of course there will be significant nanotech-related revenues, but it will be hard for nanotechnologies to penetrate much more than one percent of the apparel market. Still, even one percent of a predicted $3 trillion market by 2012 is a sizable business.

In such an atmosphere of change and competition, both manufacturers and retailers are continuously striving to meet the needs of customers and must carefully balance price with performance. Many companies are desperately trying to differentiate themselves from commodity textile markets and to secure a niche through technological innovation, including the use of nanotechnologies. Textile companies, especially in Europe and the United States, hope to find an alternative to the unsustainable strategy of competing purely on price. The highest penetration of nanotechnologies and also the highest growth rates will be in less cost-sensitive applications such as medical, military and sports textiles, where performance is usually more important than price.

In this respect, the textile industry mirrors much of traditional industry, which is shifting from adding value through process innovation to creating value through product innovation. This allows the business models of nanotextile companies to be based more on intellectual property than capital equipment. This is reflected in the fact that almost 50 percent of the companies supplying nanotechnologies for the textile industry are U.S.-based, while most of the manufacturers are in Asia.

Perhaps the most interesting and least predictable sector is non-conventional technical textiles, where nanotechnologies are enabling applications not typically associated with textiles, such as radiation shielding. Some of these applications will make use of synthetic fibers, but many will use modified natural fibers, from cotton to coconut, which may also provide opportunities for developing countries that are rich in natural resources.

The penetration of nanotechnologies into the textile market is certainly not the only example of the rapid uptake of new technology by traditional industries, and while the industry may be a first adopter, it certainly won’t be the last.

Tim Harper is CEO of Cientifica Ltd. He can be reached at [email protected]. Helen Yu is a senior analyst at Cientifica Ltd.


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.