For a number of decades now, the automotive industry’s supply chain has been highly structured and strictly managed top-down by the OEM vehicle manufacturers to ensure both maximised efficiency and just-in-time sequencing.
This extends not just to suppliers of components such as, as a textile example, automotive carpets, but also to the suppliers of the machinery on which these carpets are made. The machine manufacturers must be ISO 9001 certified and meet many other stipulations in areas such as power consumption and wastage.
Could this be the future for the highly complex and fragmented textile industry?
Having committed to ambitious sustainability goals by 2030, the majority of major apparel brands, as well as the corporations extensively using nonwovens and technical textiles in their products, are taking a greater interest than ever before in their supply chains.
They are now examining each link in the complex succession of processes that result in their final products, in order to more fully understand how they are being made and exactly what they are made from.
This new level of cooperation and transparency – stretching right back to the chemical and fibre producers – is to be welcomed, and can only lead to more sustainable practices across many areas, and not least in designing for circularity in the first place.
In examining the product components and process steps, however, one critical area can be overlooked – the role of the production machines themselves, and how they are operated on a day-to-day basis.
When nearly 80% of a machine’s environmental impact is decided during its design phase, it becomes the significant place for generating opportunities to develop more sustainable solutions.
However, the ecological goal of enduring products that are easy to repair, maintain and decommission often conflicts with the economic imperative to drive down manufacturing costs and drive-up productivity.
The ability to optimise material selection, energy consumption, emissions and waste by-products based on environmental impact, in addition to cost and performance, is crucial for today’s manufacturers. Recovery flows such as materials and by-products that are identified as waste or undesirable should inspire designers and product development managers to repurpose them as inputs. It is these upstream decisions made by designers that can massively affect sustainable solutions during a machine’s lifecycle, and the material recovery and recyclability at the end of that product’s life.
I foresee the circular economy for textile machinery is significantly influenced on better and disruptive design. Circular design should concentrate not only on the design of improved recovery infrastructures, energy efficiency and recuperation, new recycling technologies, and materials reuse, but also on the questions of what the product should be, how it works, and how it satisfies customer needs in more efficient and effective ways. Ultimately, the businesses who can successfully move towards a circular economic model will be more efficient, profitable, and investable.
It is vital for all participants at next year’s ITMA in Milan to now consider designing their machines for decommissioning and supporting customers to achieve maximum efficiency throughout the operational lifetime of each machine.
Further, machine builders need to be actively involved in the supply chain conversations that are now being instigated by the brands and corporations who in the end, have the ear of the consumer.
The operational efficiency of all production machinery – from fibre production to final packaging – is critical to fully sustainable supply chains and this extends beyond the obvious gains that can be made from minimising the use of water, energy, raw materials, dyes and chemicals wherever possible. Other factors that are given little consideration at present, include, for example, the use of lubricants, coolants and other chemicals for machine maintenance, in addition to their disposal.
Machine downtime is a major cost to factor into any plant operation calculation costs, but what also needs to be considered is that the more complicated a machine is to set up, the more the chances are that it will be left on stand-by rather than completely shut down, in many cases leading to unnecessary energy consumption.
The more flexible and easy to set up a machine is, the less chance there is of it being left idling. Modern, operator-friendly control systems are, of course, making a solid contribution here and human machine interfaces (HMI) continue to improve every year.
The flexibility of modern textile machines to rapidly move from one product to another also makes a significant contribution, with just-in-time manufacturing enabled by digitisation leading to both a reduction in the overall number of machines required and the need for holding extensive stocks, with all the expense of both involved. The rapid growth of highly successful, small-scale digital printing operations who are close to their customer bases is the obvious example of the way forward here.
Retrofitting and upgrades for machines have also got much to offer to textile manufacturers – especially in terms of energy usage in these very challenging times.
Machines may be built for robustness and long service life as a matter of course, but the retrofitting of specific modules with new controls and drive technology – going far beyond the basic replacement of spare parts – can have a significant impact on the performance of existing lines.
There are also considerable benefits to be gained from bringing a machine’s HMI up to date, as well as with frequency converter options for technical upgrades.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to establishing an entirely sustainable textile industry, and the market expectation of revolution, rather than evolution, will never happen. Nevertheless, with closer cooperation between all players in the supply chain, the textile machinery industry can rapidly move forward in meeting the short-term sustainability goals of its major customers.
Jason Kent, CEO, BTMA