The United States is the second largest market for apparel consumption in the world and is also the third-largest producer of cotton globally. But despite having demand and materials, the domestic textiles and apparel industry has been in steady decline for decades. The U.S. imported a total of $127.7 billion in textiles and apparel in 2019, and employment in the textile and apparel industry has declined about 80 percent since 1990. The U.S. textile mills that produce fiber, yarn, and fabric have maintained a presence, but now a majority of their materials are exported to other countries, processed and then shipped back to the U.S. in finished products or garments.
Textile product manufacturers have seen little development or adoption of production-based technology advances over the past two decades, as the costs to move labor-intensive production overseas are often lower than the cost to invest in developing needed automation. This is a massive lost economic opportunity as apparel is a trillion-dollar industry and clothing and textiles account for about 2 percent of the global GDP.
In order to create new jobs and provide domestic manufacturers with a competitive edge, two institutes in the Manufacturing USA® network – AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) and the ARM Institute (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) – are working to revolutionize the U.S domestic textile industry.
Manufacturing USA® is a national network created to secure U.S. global leadership in advanced manufacturing through large-scale public-private collaboration on technology, supply chain, and education and workforce development. The network comprises the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Energy and Defense, their sponsored manufacturing innovation institutes, and six additional federal agency partners, creating a whole-of-government, national effort to drive innovation in manufacturing.
This model has been successful in accelerating technology and scale-up, supporting small and medium-sized manufacturers to gain access to opportunities, building out unique advanced manufacturing ecosystems, and developing the workforce needed to grow the industry.
AFFOA and ARM are collaborating with their membership ecosystems to identify advanced textile technologies and manufacturing capabilities to automate processes and develop innovative products such as smart fabrics and e-textiles. Together, the institutes are helping to re-invigorate the domestic textile industrial base, increase adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies, and develop the next generation textile workforce.
AFFOA is transforming traditional fibers, yarns and textiles into highly sophisticated, integrated, and networked devices and systems, enabling novel products and business models that leverage fabrics as a service. AFFOA describes functional or smart fabrics as being active or responsive to an environment, including but not limited to the use of electronics embedded in the textile (e-textiles).
One reason that the textile industry is ripe for disruption and innovation is because fibers and fabrics are ubiquitous and surround us in life, from clothes to furniture to the composites that are the building blocks for various products. Apparel is a great example of a product category that is generally viewed as a commodity. By leveraging this form factor and seamlessly incorporating advanced functionality like sensing or energy harvesting, we can enable capabilities and services in apparel that have previously been restricted to hardware and wearables.
AFFOA describes its role in this advanced fiber and fabric technology development ecosystem as bridging the “innovation valley of death” in manufacturing readiness level, taking a new technology with an established proof of concept through R&D to develop prototypes and scalable processes for commercialization.
As part of its ecosystem, AFFOA has established three Fabric Discovery Centers (FDCs) to spur innovation and regional economic development aligned with advanced fibers and fabrics. The FDCs are innovation centers with capabilities including advanced R&D, end-to-end prototyping, start-up incubation space, manufacturing process development and education and workforce development activities – all of which supports both defense and commercial needs. The FDCs work to:
- Increase manufacturability of advanced fiber and fabric technologies and products
- Facilitate prototype development and pilot production
- Address challenges that prevent volume manufacturing
AFFOA success stories include helping develop the emerging healthwear category in which active ingredients in textile fabrics, such as pain relievers, can be programmed for controlled release, delivering therapeutic amounts directly to the skin. The active ingredients remain effective after multiple home machine washes.
Other examples are:
- Sensing Fibers and Fabrics: A recent project demonstrated a new approach in the fabrication of device fibers known as “any chip anywhere.” Semiconductor chips can be embedded into a drawn polymer fiber. The embedded sensors and chips create a system for data telemetry, power, and computation. In essence, this allows fibers to be converted into multiplexed sensing devices. This platform has been demonstrated in prototype components.
- Physiological Status Monitoring: One project developed a headband capable of monitoring heart rate, blood oxygenation, and user motion with wireless data transmission capabilities. A headband was chosen as the form factor for military use because it guarantees more accurate blood oxygenation measurements than wrist-based optical sensing. This headband demonstrated one of the benefits of textile-based sensing, which is to enable critical sensing measurements at the most appropriate place on the body while seamlessly integrating into existing systems.
- Changing colors on demand: Older versions of color-changing fabrics need sunlight or body heat to work, but ChroMorphous technology allows the user to decide when and how the transformation will take place. The user can control the color and patterns of clothing and accessories with a smartphone. The technology has been applied to fashion products, such as clothing, backpacks, tote bags, and shoes, and is also being applied to furniture and home and office decor. This technology could enable the military to actively blend into different environments using just one uniform.
ARM is introducing robotics to garment construction in order to enhance and expand apparel production in the U.S. To date, industrial robots have failed to find a place in garment construction due to the robots’ difficulties in handling non-rigid textiles. The result of these handling issues is that the apparel industry is strongly dependent on manual labor. However, that may be changing with the introduction of grip technology for textiles.
ARM has worked on several projects using robotics in the textile industry, often building off success to develop more advanced capabilities. Here are three examples:
- Using a robot to create men’s trousers: This project focused on the development of a robotic system that can accurately grasp and place a single layer of fabric from a bundle.
- Robotic Hemming: In this effort, a bimanual robot picked up a T-shirt from a stack, dynamically readjusted its shape, and then inserted it into an automatic bottom hemmer that performed a circular stitch at the bottom of the T-shirt.
- Stiffening fabric for robotic sewing: This project developed a new robotic assembly process that stiffened garment pieces by laminating fabric with water-soluble thermoplastic polymer. A Robot Operating System (ROS) was able to achieve a synchronized operation that controlled traditional sewing machines to work on the stiffened fabric. The polymer utilized in the process can be easily removed through washing and can be recycled for multiple process cycles.
ARM’s work on automating the assembly of cloth face masks early in the pandemic was an example of how Manufacturing USA institutes collaborate with stakeholders to advance technology and work through manufacturing hurdles. ARM brought together the following entities:
- Sewbo Inc., a startup that has pioneered the technology to stiffen garment pieces by laminating fabric with water-soluble thermoplastic polymer
- Bluewater Defense, which manufactures equipment and uniforms for the military
- Siemens Technology, a global giant in advanced manufacturing and automation
- Henderson Sewing Machine Company, a global OEM in the sewing industry
- Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), which serves the textile industry
This consortium of stakeholders with a common goal worked closely to integrate systems and automate the process. Each brought their unique capabilities to the project in order to establish a foundational infrastructure for robotic adoption to garment construction and sewn products.
The manufacturing innovation institutes and their membership ecosystems are poised to transform the textile industry through the advancement of integrated fabrics and fibers, automated manufacturing technologies and innovative workforce development programs. These efforts will enable a multitude of breakthrough capabilities and create new fabric-based business models that ultimately benefit the soldier, the consumer, and the domestic manufacturer.
This requires a shift from seeing textiles, threads, and composites as the inert two-dimensional materials of previous generations and re-envisioning the fabric as a platform for technology. Whether these are fabrics that can see, sense, hear and communicate or those that can deliver active ingredients, self-clean, change shape or color, or offer new physical shapes and performance capabilities, these “smart” fabrics will deliver value-added capabilities to consumers. This will create new fabric-based business models and whole new supporting industries. With new textile-based services will come the need for new manufacturing techniques and a highly skilled workforce capable of both building the new products and utilizing them in new ways across traditional and emerging spaces.
About the institutes: In 2020, manufacturing innovation institutes collectively worked with over 2,000 member organizations to collaborate on more than 500 major research and development projects and engaged over 70,000 people in building workforce knowledge and skills in advanced manufacturing. State, industry and federal funds contributed $400 million to these activities. To learn more about how these institutes are invigorating the textile industry, visit the Institutes’ page.