Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

Textile R&D Remains Strong

Jul 03, 2017 01:46PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John McCurry

Although Clemson University phased out its textile program a few years ago, some of its faculty in the Materials Science and Engineering Dept. continue to be at the cusp of some of the ground-breaking research that will power future developments in textiles and apparel.  As Rajendra Bordia, a professor and chairman of the department, explains, Clemson researchers have a long track record of expertise working in the fiber and textile industries.

As a result, Clemson was invited to become a part of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America project, a collaboration of nearly 100 universities, manufacturers and startup incubators. Upstate textile manufacturers are also participating, including Inman Mills and Milliken.

Bordia, along with fellow researchers Chris Cole and Kostya Kornev, plan to submit proposals to AFFOA later this year for projects related to fibers.

Inman Mills, a manufacturer of yarns and fabrics for mostly technical end uses, operates three plants in Spartanburg County. The company is working on multiple projects for the AFFOA program. Norman Chapman, the company’s president and COO, declines to discuss the exact nature of the projects due to proprietary concerns, but says AFFOA’s focus is on connectivity in fabrics.

AFFOA concentrates on using existing research to fast-track work on revolutionary smart fabrics, which perform a function as opposed to being passive.

“AFFOA’s first objective is to connect fabric with the Internet, so they are working on that,” Chapman says. “They are also working on fibers and yarns that do things such as monitoring of vital organs.”

Chapman says AFFOA projects are moving faster than the organization originally forecasted, and says it has a bright future. Its first objective is to connect fabrics to the Internet.

“One thing they are doing is go out to various universities and aggregating the intellectual property that is sitting on the shelf and bringing it together where companies can find it and use it,” Chapman says. “There is a tremendous amount of IP in various entities that is not being used. They put it where it can be accessed and it’s available for a nominal fee with the majority of the money going back to where the IP belongs. This can be a tremendous benefit to the industry.”

Clemson is also working on two projects with grants from The Walmart Foundation U.S. Manufacturing Fund. One project involves the reduction of energy and effluent through an innovating dyeing of polyester fabrics. The project seeks to solve a long-time industry problem that results in an estimated 200,000 tons of dyestuff lost each year in the effluent from commercial dyeing operations. About 20 percent of that is attributed to dyeing polyester.

“We will transition to a larger scale in industry this fall,” Cole says. “These fabrics can be dyed at lower temperatures with shorter dye cycles. One of our partners anticipates a 40 percent cost reduction. The numbers are exciting.”

The other Walmart-funded project focuses on environmentally sustainable water and oil-repellent fabrics through development of polyester fibers which achieve a high level of water and oil repellency.

Through the years, Clemson’s Material Sciences and Engineering Dept.  has offered its services to industrial partners, assisting more than 100 companies with various projects over the past several years. In April, the department invited representatives of these manufacturers to visit its facilities and discuss potential collaborations. More than 25 participated, representing about two dozen companies.

“There is a big concern in the textile industry about where our workforce will be coming from,” Cole says. “A lot of companies have people at or near retirement age. These companies have hired our grads over the years, so they know what they can expect, and that’s a lot of problem resolution.”

The department plans to make its industry event an annual event, and expand it next year.

“Many of the companies, while working in the same field, have never interacted with each other, and our industry day is a good point of contact for them,” says Kornev, a professor in the department since 2006. “When a company hits a problem they haven’t seen before, maybe another set of eyes can help.”

Sometimes old technologies can be transformed into something high-tech. Cole notes that braiding, a venerable textile process, is now being used to produce high-tech products for the medical industry, and through carbon yarns, in aerospace.

“Nowadays, braiding plays a big role in aerospace to lock composites together to have integrity in structures,” Cole says. “I’m guessing that braiding will play a big role in what the Toray plant [in Spartanburg County] does.”