EU Textile Industry In A Leapfrog Mode

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Brussels, April 5: | Updated: Apr 6 2003, 05:30am hrs
Can you name the industry which even today is using technology that is over 150 years old No, its not basket weaving or rug making. The industry in question has an annual turnover of around $80 billion in the European Union (EU) alone, where it employs just over 1 million workers. It is, in fact, a very labour-intensive industry, and one that is fearful that it may go under in Europe after January 1, 2005, as a result of competition from China and India.

The industry in question is the clothing industry. Together with the textile industry, it helped launch the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Europe in the 19th century. But while shuttle looms have been replaced by rapier, air or water-jet technologies in the weaving industry, the sewing machine is still used to assemble garments from their component parts. The modern sewing machine obviously is more rapid and advanced than its 19th century forebear, but the fact is that garment manufacture remains almost as labour-intensive as in the days of yore.

Hence the growing fear within the European garment industry, and its subcontractors in Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean countries, that they will be unable to compete with their Asian counterparts, once the present system of quotas has run its 10-year course on December 31, 2004. (Clothing accounts for some two-thirds of the products subject to quotas in the 15-nation EU during 2002-2004.) Hence also the growing clamour from European exporters for easier access to the markets in the developing countries. They point out that easier access to the Chinese market led to a 35 per cent increase in European clothing exports during 2001, as compared to 2000.

But while EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy is busy negotiating with Asian countries, the European textile and clothing industry representatives in Brussels the European Apparel and Textile Organisation (Euratex) is looking for ways of helping the garment industry leapfrog from the 19th to the 21st century. A group of around 50 European research institutes, machinery manufacturers, software developers, and education and training establishments have joined forces to transform the entire textile and clothing sector into a flexible, knowledge-driven, high-tech industry. The outcome is Project Leapfrog Leadership for European apparel production from research along original guidelines.

The aim is to make a technological breakthrough in woven garment manufacture, according to Euratex. At the core of this integrated programme is technology to supersede and/or automate the existing cutting and sewing technologies, in conjunction with innovative solutions in fabric preparation and handling. This new technology will be linked to the latest technological advances in tri-dimensional simulation and mass customisation.

An example of these latest advances is the scanner-based, made-to-measure process which retail company C&A is testing at its flagship store in Hamburg, Germany. This process is a full supply chain for made-to-measure suits, jackets and trousers. The customers individual body measures are scanned, and an order is prepared, using specially designed software. The order and key measures are forwarded to a supplier, and the tailor-made garment delivered to the customer within four weeks.

The European textile and clothing industry is already a world leader in terms of fashion, creativity, innovation and the quality of its products, according to Euratex. The Leapfrog project should allow it to hold on to its position as the worlds leading exporter of textile products, and to improve on its present position as the third largest exporter. Although the EU exports over $40 billion worth of textile and clothing products annually, it is running a trade deficit of some $5 billion each year at present in clothing, as compared to a rising surplus in textiles. A technological breakthrough in the apparel industry could even turn this deficit into a surplus, by cutting back labour costs per unit of production, as has happened in the textile industry. In any case, a more competitive apparel industry will benefit the entire industry, given that apparel alone absorbs 40 per cent of EUs textile production, according to Euratex.

The proposed research activities have enormous potential, at the same time, for process and product innovation in many sectors, ranging from the automotive and aeronautical to footwear, furniture and even medical surgery. As was the case with its previous research projects, the European clothing industry expects to obtain the funds needed to finance the Leapfrog project from the EU, this time through its sixth framework programme for research. This programme has an overall budget of around $17.5 billion, covering the four-year period from 2003 to 2006. Its focus is on nanotechnology and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials, and new production processes and devices. The aim is to involve the EUs research and scientific networks in the goal of transforming the EU into the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. To this end the sixth framework programme provides for active participation of the private sector, including small and medium-sized companies.

The first of the three main objectives of the leapfrog project is a step-change in productivity and cost efficiency in the manufacturing process. Euratex is confident that radical re-engineering and intelligent automation of the key tasks in what remains a labour-intensive process will make it unnecessary for the EU clothing industry to turn to suppliers in low-wage countries.

The second objective is the move to rapid, customised manufacturing. This will enable garment manufacturers to keep up with ever-speedier fashion trends and retail order cycles, and bring the right product to the right place at shortest notice.

The third objective is a major change in the organisation and management of customer service and customer relationship. The demand for garments as made-to-measure fashion items, on the one hand, and for protective equipment and medical devices, such as wearable computers built into clothing, cannot be met by todays fibre-textile-clothing mass-production chain and management systems.

The transformation of the European apparel industry, with its roots in the 19th century, into a high-tech, 21st century industry will obviously mean job losses. However, even the trade unions accept this, given that the new jobs will be better paid and at the cutting edge of new technology. But this transformation will also require a massive reorganisation of the entire European textile and clothing industry.

Euratex and its members deny the need for this. They point out that the industry had a turnover of nearly $200 billion during 2001, and exported over 20 per cent of this turnover outside the EU. The fact remains that the industry is highly fragmented even today, with no fewer than 110,000 manufacturing units in the clothing sector alone. Some 85,000 of them employ between one to nine people, while just over 1,000 companies employ over 250 people. Just how the leapfrog project will benefit these tiny units remains to be seen.

The effect this radical transformation of the European apparel industry will have on the exports of India and other Asian countries also remains to be seen. Of course, the leapfrog project is still in its infancy. Its implementation will take time, as will the transfer of laboratory achievements to the factory floor. Quotas, on the other hand, will disappear on January 1, 2005. Euratex accepts that its disappearance will expose the European industry to fierce competition, on both domestic and foreign markets, given that East Asian garment manufacturers in particular are also turning to advanced technologies. The winner clearly will be the consumer!