The future's Swedish textiles do not hang by a thread
Deep within the facilities at the Swedish School of Textiles, a strong team of 18 researchers is developing technological solutions that create new opportunities for Swedish textile production. The aim is to manufacture advanced and sought-after smart textiles in a sustainable and economical way. Some of the keys to the future are digital printing and 3D printers.
"It is not just about material technology. We use technology to find both sustainable and economical solutions. We also aim for our research to be used in industry in the relatively near future," says Vincent Nierstrasz, professor of textile technology at the Swedish School of Textiles, who is leading the research.
The research is adapted for the textile industry in Sweden and the Sjuhärad region.
"The future here is not in production in large volumes. What is relevant here are exclusive products that customers are willing to pay well for. Garments and textiles designed for individuals and specific purposes," says Vincent Nierstrasz.
Less water in textile production
Conventional textile production achieves its desired effects through large baths of chemicals and water. But only some of the costly chemicals are used. Much is washed away with the water which then has to be expensively purified. Wet textiles also require energy to be dried, which is both unsustainable and uneconomical.
"By using printer technology, among other things, we can find ways to treat textiles and create specific features with high precision, without excessive use of chemicals and without emissions."
Combining resource-efficient and economical production with sustainability is attracting great interest in the textile industry.
"The industry is accustomed to sustainability's providing advantages in the market. What we develop will also save money in production. Therefore, there are good arguments all the way through. The interest of the industry is large and growing. We focus on using as little water as possible in our processes."
The textile industry, through the organisation TEKO, Swedish Textile and Fashion Enterprises, participates and provides input for research and the Swedish Textile Research Foundation, which is close to TEKO, contributes 10 million Swedish crowns. The Knowledge Foundation, which funds research universities with previous financing from Swedish employee funds, is another player that makes this research possible.
The team is highly international; the way to Borås has been different for each member. Vincent Nierstrasz, who is Dutch with a broad international background in textile research, mainly in the Netherlands and Belgium, did not hesitate for long when he was asked to do research on Swedish soil.
"I have seen many universities from inside the collaboration within AUTEX, Association of Universities for Textiles and its Master's degree programme E-TEAM. When I networked with various universities, I discovered that Borås was special. Here, different research fields and technologies meet and contacts are good with industry. When I was offered a professorship here, the choice was obvious," says Vincent Nierstrasz.
Post-doc Junchun Yu from China first came to KTH in Stockholm.
"It was KTH's position within nanotechnology that attracted me. I then proceeded to Umeå where I completed a doctorate in the field of polymers and carbon nanocomposites, and now I have the opportunity to delve further here in Borås and focus on innovations in inkjet and 3D printing."
Digital printing on textiles
Sweden also attracted Sina Seipel from a university in Germany, Reutlingen. She took the opportunity through participating in an exchange programme. Now she is a doctoral student in Borås and researches how textiles can be given different properties that are affected by UV light.
On location in the lab, Junchun Yu shows examples of his work with digital printing. Basically, it is the same technology used in those printers for paper that are now common in many homes. For future industrial use in textiles there are, however, quite different demands. Here, it is not primarily intended to provide colour and pattern, but instead to add special properties. For example, to produce textiles that repel dirt or water, act as sensors, or conduct electricity that transmits information. The possibilities are many, and all are not yet known. Much of the groundwork is all about printing in one colour. One-colour printouts reveal the performance of the printhead and ink.
Colour printing with high precision
Junchun Yu's test print is done. The figures and text look fine, but across the whole surface there are visible revealing streaks. This means pico-sized drops, 10-12 litres, one billionth of a millilitre. Thus high precision. If individual nozzles are not completely functional, it's noticeable.
"If we work with colour, some shortcomings can be tolerated. But if it is about, for example, a heart sensor, nothing can go wrong. Therefore, we must develop methods that are completely reliable," says Vincent Nierstrasz.
The manufacturers of printers and printheads reach continuously higher levels. In Borås, printers and printheads for textile use in specific areas are researched and developed. For industrial application, the requirements are for high speed and hefty print width. 30 meters per minute is the top requirement. It is for the purchase of such full-scale printers that money from the Foundation Swedish Textile Research will be of great benefit.
Visual effects with UV light
Something else that is, in several ways, current within the research is UV light, which is used to harden print. UV-sensitive material can also be applied to the textiles to create visual effects.
"A ski suit can be made to change colour when the sun comes up. A cool effect that can attract buyers. Clothing can indicate when it is time to protect oneself against the sun's rays," says Sina Seipel, who focuses on UV light in her doctoral research.
To show the principle, she shines a UV lamp on a textile and soon a printed zebra appears. When the UV lamp is removed, the zebra fades away.
In the lab, there is also a 3D printer, but it has an unexpected use.
"We do not use it to build three-dimensionally with textiles. We use it to apply material without using solvents," explains Junchun Yu.
Coating fabrics with layers that effectively repel water and dirt are important parts of this research. Hazardous fluorocarbons have previously resolved this, but now people are looking for new solutions that protect the environment and health. At the same time, antistatic properties are sought.
Research can soon be reality
Finally, Vincent Nierstrasz speaks about another promising area: supercritical carbon dioxide. This occurs in liquid form and can replace water in textile processes.
"Some of the research that we conduct can, in the fairly near future, be applied in industry. Other research is more long term. Every new solution brings with it new questions that go further with, explains Nierstrasz, who makes the point that research provides important future-oriented knowledge to educational programmes.
"When our students move into the work environment, they will see what we are researching today," he concludes.
Open for partnerships
"Here are concrete and tangible projects where we in the industry can see the benefits and opportunities. It inspires us also to seek broader and deeper collaborations with university researchers," says Anne Ludvigson of the work that Vincent Nierstrasz's group conducts.
Anne Ludvigson is chairperson of TEKO, Sweden Textiles & Fashion Enterprises and president of the family company Ludvigson Invest, whose companies primarily operate textile development and are known for the production of greenhouse and interior textiles. She admits that industry has not always been as open to collaborative research as it is today.
"We had no such practice in industry. The big initiative of Smart Textiles has given us a lot of knowledge and experience and I hope that we can develop cooperation with research even more."
Some facts about Smart Textiles
Smart Textiles is a research environment in which the University of Borås, SP Technical Research Institute, Swerea IVF and Inkubatorn in Borås collaborate.
450 research and business projects have been started since 2006, focusing on textile development leading to better living for people as well as creating new jobs.
Smart Textiles's three main areas are:
• Health and medicine
• Sustainable textiles
• Architecture and environment
With 7 million over 10 years, Vinnova is the main financier of Smart Textiles. At least as much comes from regional funding agencies, among them the Västra Götaland Region, Sjuhärads Kommunalförbund, and Sparbanksstiftelsen Sjuhärad.
Concrete and tangible, yes. But Anne Ludvigson also points to the importance of people.
"With Vincent Nierstrasz, we have a research leader with a passion for research and industry."
An open research environment in which results are available to all is part of what Per-Olof Hygren appreciates about the Swedish School of Textiles. He was president of the Foundation for Swedish Textile Research when it was decided to contribute 10 million for materials research--a record amount in the Foundation's history.
"The Foundation is the trade association TEKO's innovation organ. Assets have been built up by the industry for a long time. The returns should primarily promote research and higher education in the textile field," he says.
"10 million to new technology - for a cleaner textile industry"
More about Vincent Nierstrasz
More about Junchun Yu
More about Sina Seipel
Text: Ingemar Brink
Photo: Anna Sigge
Translation: Eva Medin