EU devising a daring strategy

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Dec 25 2004, 05:30am hrs
There is only one word to describe the strategy which the European textile and clothing industry has devised to beat off competition from India and China daring. It plans to move away from mass-produced textile products, and to give the customer what he really wants. And the customer is not just men and women but also car manufacturers, the engineering and building industries, health care and defence and security.

The European industry plans to go really high-tech, and to move into markets in which competition comes not so much from low-cost textile producers in China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan but from manufacturers of comparable products and components made of metal, plastics, wood, etc. In short, it is gearing up to move into areas inaccessible to India and China.

Paradoxically, Indian computer experts and software engineers could well find themselves working hand-in-glove with the European industry. This is because IT is at the heart of the strategy the industry has devised.

The new strategy was unveiled by Euratex, the Brussels-based lobbyist-cum-think tank, at a conference held here earlier this month. The keynote speaker was Janez Potocnik, the EUs new commissioner for science and research. His audience included not only CEOs from leading European manufacturing companies but also representatives of European scientific and industrial research institutes.

They will be key players in the Euratexs strategy. Called the European technology platform for the future of the textiles and clothing, it involves the industry as well as machinery manufacturers and service providers and the scientific and educational communities. The successful outcome of the platform will require the support of national and regional public authorities and the European Commission, the EUs executive arm, which is a major source of funding for R&D.

The aim of the technology platform is three-fold. One, move away from commodities towards speciality products using high-tech processes, based on nano-, micro- and biotechnologies; new coatings and lamination; digital processes, etc. Two, continue the development of technical textiles. This year slightly over 50% of these textiles will be used by the transport and construction industries and for protective end uses. Another 9% will be used by furniture manufacturers and some 8% by the medical and health sector.

Three, move away from mass-produced garments towards a new industrial era characterised by customisation, personalisation and on-demand production coupled with intelligent logistics, distribution and services. A Belgian firm of shirt manufacturers already offers its customers garments that are virtually made-to-measure, and at a price that is not much higher than that in a department store.

The Belgian firm obviously relies heavily on IT for several stages of the process. But it also relies on garment manufacturers in East European and southern Mediterranean countries where wages are much lower than in Belgium. Of course, European research institutes are trying to find ways of using robots ather than humans to make garments, but success has eluded them so far.

Should Indian textile and garment manufacturers be alarmed at these developments Not really, although they, too, will have to follow the high-tech road in the future. The Euratex strategy is not designed to meet Indian and Chinese competition. This is clear from the sub-title of the strategy: A vision for 2020. It is a long-term strategy.

Moreover, the European industry will not find it easy to implement this resolutely 21st century strategy. Euratex itself points out that the industry consists of some 200,000 companies in the 25-nation EU, some 95% of which are small and medium-sized. Because the industry is so fragmented, it lacks the necessary financial and human resources. Other shortcomings listed by Euratex include a general lack of long-term company and industry strategies, a fragmentation, duplication and discontinuity of research efforts, and shortcomings in the ability to translate research results into product- and process- innovation.

The European industry remains a major industrial sector, with an annual turnover of 215 billion euro and a workforce of 2.6 billion. It is the leading exporter of textiles in the world. And Euratexs strategy will be fully supported by the EC with funding, because it fits in well with the EUs global strategy of turning the EU into the worlds most competitive, knowledge-based economy by 2010.