Nanotech, Textiles: EU e-tailor Project To Climb Up Global Mart

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Brussels, November 10: | Updated: Nov 11 2002, 05:30am hrs
Imagine a shirt with sleeves programmed to shorten as the room temperature rises. Or a jacket that can be rolled up into a ball, crushed, and then restored to its former shape by holding it in a stream of hot air - from a hair dryer, for example. Or clothes made from fabrics containing tiny biosensors which continuously monitor your health.

Or you can design your own shirt, using your computer, from a wide choice of fabrics, styles and colours; have it cut to your exact body size, without the use of a tape measure, and delivered to your door two weeks later, for a reasonable price.

The European garment industry is going high-tech, as the above examples indicate. This is the same industry that was being written off some 20 years ago as a sunset industry, threatened with extinction by a rising tide of imports from Asia. European garment manufacturers were being urged to relocate in the low-wage countries, or to develop niche markets. Survival lay in limiting imports from Asia by means of quotas and trade defence measures. Hence the vigorous anti-dumping, anti-subsidy measures taken by Pascal Lamy, the present European Union (EU) Trade Commissioner, and his predecessors.

All that is changing, thanks not so much to Mr Lamy as to two of his colleagues, the EU Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, and the Commissioner for business and information technology, Erkki Liikanen. Mr Busquin will be launching on November 11 the EUs sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6). The event is sufficiently important to have attracted the attention of Indias minister for science and technology and HRD Murli Manohar Joshi, who will attend the launch ceremonies and see how India can take part in the research programme.

FP6 in EU jargon will have a budget of some $17.5 billion, and run from 2003 to 2006. Unlike earlier programmes, FP6 will be a key instrument in creating the European Research Area and in promoting Europes excellence in science, according to Mr Busquin. The programme will focus on the most promising areas of research, including information technology, biotechnology, space, new materials and nanotechnologies.

Nanotechnologies and textiles The fact is that an Italian company, Corpo Nove, wants to insert various materials into fibres using nanotechnology. The company demonstrated some of its products at the one-day conference organised in Brussels by Mr Liikanens department under the title, The EU apparel business goes high-tech.

The garments on display included a cooling jacket, made from fabric containing 50 metres of tubing, and the absolute zero jacket, padded with aerogel, an insulating material.

For Mr Liikanen, putting Europe at the forefront in international competitiveness is one of the biggest and most urgent challenges facing the 15-nation European Union. To this end he wants to turn the EU into an effective, inclusive electronic or e-society, a key component of which is the on-going e-tailor project. He is determined to introduce the new technologies made possible by Commissioner Busquins focus on scientific research into the manufacturing and retailing sectors as quickly as possible.

Hence, the focus on the e-tailor project. Co-funded by Mr Liikanens information societies technology programme, e-tailor has brought together not only research organisations from across Europe, such as Nottingham Trent Universitys Size-Shape-Fit Research Unit, but also firms such as C&A.

Working with research organisations in the framework of the e-tailor project, the company is using its flagship store in Hamburg to develop a full supply chain for made-to-measure suits. The key steps include scanning the customer for body measurements, transferring his order and measures to suppliers, and delivering the garment in four weeks.

The fact is that nearly 80 per cent of customers now look for a good fit, according to a recent study. But internet-based business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce in clothing has been hampered so far by problems of fit, feel or touch, colour, logistics and delivery. The director of a Belgian shirt manufacturer told participants at the Brussels conference how her 50-year old firm, Bivolino, is now offering men customised shirts at affordable prices. Thanks to such enabling technologies as customised garment design, each shirt is cut according to the exact body shape, on the basis of age, weight, height and collar size. The shirts are made in a factory some 2,000 kms. from Belgium, but delivered to the customer within 14 days. And because the customer is a co-creator of the garment, less than 1 per cent of shirts are returned and the customer repeat rate is over 50 per cent.

C&A and Bivolino are among the growing number of European companies that are taking advantage of the new, emerging market of personalised on-line shopping. This is a growing market segment between the small, niche market of bespoke clothing for the very rich, and the huge market for standard garments sold through mail order houses, for example (with return rates of 35 per cent). It is a segment which requires personalised products, quick response to demand changes and direct customer communication and feedback. Its customers, in the case of Bivolino, for example, are men between 25 and 54 years of age (the core group is between 35 and 44 years), who care about their appearance, but hate shopping. Customers, Bivolino believes, are no longer interested in buying a product; they want to create it themselves, an experience made possible by the latest technological developments, at every step of the process.

Will high-tech reduce the steady inroads which Asian suppliers in particular are making into the European clothing market While the EUs trade balance for textiles is positive, it recorded a thumping deficit last year in clothing, with imports of roughly $50 billion as against exports of just $16 billion. And the situation is expected to get worse after January 1, 2005 with the expiry of the WTO Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC). Indeed, China and Hong Kong are both introducing the latest technology, partly because European companies that are developing mass customisation are using this technology to transmit data to them. But the EUs garment manufacturers are backing the move to high-tech design, manufacture and retailing. The Brussels conference, although funded by Commissioner Liikanens department, was actively supported by the European textile and clothing industry through its Brussels-based lobby, Euratex. Its Director-General, William Lakin, was confident that Europe is much better placed than the United States and Japan to succeed where they failed a decade ago in developing the necessary technology.

Mr Lakin told the industry representatives attending the Brussels conference to remove from our mind the idea that we need merely to improve upon what we are already doing in order to make a breakthrough. He exhorted them to think laterally, to pull in the experience of other industries and of scientists from outside textiles and clothing. The resulting changes will cost jobs, but Mr Lakin thought it preferable to retain a lesser number of skilled, stable jobs than to lose even greater numbers to unrestrained imports of low-cost products from Asia.

The Euratex Director-General went on to list some of the challenges facing the European clothing industry. Do we have to assume that sewing is the only way of bringing together the various components of say, mens suits Perhaps the traditional way in which linings are incorporated into suits needs to be changed, if not eliminated altogether. And do the clothes of tomorrow need to closely resemble those worn today

Finally, wasnt it time to develop fabrics that can be made into garments by means other than cutting and sewing Mr Lakin thought the inelegant uniforms worn by Capitan Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise were not cut and sewn. The way ahead was indicated by the Italian firm Corpo Nove. Working with the European Space Agency it has developed thermal space memory metals as a fabric for shirts.

Clearly, Indias Union minister for science and technology Murli Manohar Joshi and his team will have a field day when they come here for the launch of the EUs sixth Research Framework Programme.