Mirjam Matti Gähwiler — 22.04.2021

The Corona pandemic has hit the Swiss textile industry hard. A survey conducted by Swiss Textiles shows a drastic decline in investments. Yet it is precisely in times of crisis that one should remain innovative. We spoke to Dr. Jan Zimmermann, responsible for Industry Relations at ETH Zurich, about how he perceives the Swiss textile industry and what opportunities and challenges he sees.

Through your work you have a good overview of developments in the industry: what are the main drivers today?

For some time now, sustainability has been the main issue that all companies have had to deal with. This means significant upheavals for the industry. The fashion industry with its major brands has meanwhile recognised that producing more and more at an ever faster pace is no longer sustainable. This will result in a slowdown.

Digitalisation is another issue we have been aware of for quite some time already, and it has gained in importance as a result of the corona virus pandemic. Here it is important to note that digitalisation means something different for every company. Everyone has to decide for themselves where they can exploit the opportunities presented by digitalisation. In the field of design, for example, this could take the form of digital development of prototypes, or in business management it might involve the introduction of fully digital accounting. And in the field of production for which training is required at the international level, use could be made of a training app and videos instead of organising courses in the classroom. There are numerous opportunities for digitalisation along the entire supply chain. Together with the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne we have created the Swiss Data Science Centre in order to support companies along the path to digitalisation.

Where do you envisage the main challenges for Swiss companies?

It has to be said that these are by no means easy times for Swiss companies. Many of the small and medium-sized companies in Switzerland’s textiles industry have had a lengthy tradition of owner-management over several generations. The generation that is at the helm today has to hold its own against immense competition and has to do everything in its power just to maintain the status quo.

The electronics and textiles industries are structured entirely differently, and this means that new processes and interfaces have to be created.

And of course the market constantly demands innovation.

Precisely. Innovation is dry bread that has to be chewed. Its complexity is often underestimated. You can’t simply buy it and implement it. Those who want to break new ground have to do so with a full commitment, have the backing of the entire organisation, be prepared to invest the necessary resources and also possess plenty of stamina. And of course there is no guarantee that their investment will pay off. This truly calls for a great deal of courage.

Major technology groups have discovered an interest in textile products, namely smart textiles. Where do we currently stand?

I am fully convinced that smart textiles have enormous potential, in the clothing industry as well as for various other industrial applications, but there is still a long way to go before a genuine breakthrough can be achieved. Developing and producing smart textiles is a much more complicated undertaking than we initially assumed. It involves two sectors that could hardly be more different from one another. The electronics and textiles industries are structured entirely differently, and this means that new processes and interfaces have to be created. Technology firms often tend to underestimate the high degree of maturity of textile production. They cannot simply intervene in this highly efficient but complex system whenever they wish. In their turn, textile companies are increasingly making the mistake of assuming they can simply start producing smart textiles “on the side” along with their conventional textile production. But “part-time” smart textile production won’t work – it’s too complex.

In some countries there are textile companies that now focus entirely on the production of smart textiles and have successfully positioned themselves on the market. They are of course ideal partners for technology groups because they have already harmonised their processes. The spin-offs from the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich also focus on one side of the industry, of course.

Today, interdisciplinary teams already work on complex cases during their studies.

You were active in the textiles industry yourself, before joining the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Where does cooperation take place between industry and research, and where is there room for improvement?

In my view, Switzerland has two major advantages: firstly, it is a country in which there is a high proportion of well-educated people. Regardless of the career path someone chooses, whether in the dual system or academia, he or she has a great deal of potential to offer. In my opinion, the small and medium-sized companies that account for a large proportion of the textiles industry do not make sufficient use of this potential, especially with regard to taking on graduates from the Federal Institute of Technology. Perhaps this is due to preconceptions that university education is too far removed from practical vocations. This has changed enormously, of course, over the past twenty years. Today, interdisciplinary teams already work on complex cases during their studies. I would like to see companies adopt a more open-minded approach to the younger generation and take on these highly educated people in order to benefit from the impulses they can provide.

Secondly, there is a great deal of support for innovation in Switzerland. On the one hand from the Swiss Innovation Agency (Innosuisse), and on the other from universities (including the Federal Institute of Technology), which open their doors in order to initiate ideas and projects in cooperation with the industry.

In the past few years, various spin-offs* from the Federal Institute of Technology have been established that focus on textile applications. Are textiles “in” again for start-ups?

It is more or less by chance that these spin-offs focus on solutions that have something to do with textiles. Textile research per se is not carried out at the Federal Institute of Technology. The various spin-offs or research initiatives have their origins in architecture, computer science, biotechnology or sport psychology. They have either discovered an application for textiles in the course of their research activity, or found textiles to be suitable materials for their products. Things are happening in the field of research, too: for example, textile concrete formwork by the Block Research Group, and 3D design of clothing in the Interactive Geometry Lab. Personally I’m very pleased, of course, that so many textiles are being developed by spin-offs from the Federal Institute of Technology.

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