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A role model for cross-industry innovation: The German textile industry

Smart textiles and fibers are a success story in Germany these days. Additionally they provide excellent case studies in cross-industry and cross-science innovation.

Some years ago, the German textile industry was a sad story. Around 800,000 jobs in this industry were lost since the early seventies and only one out of seven companies survived. Yet the German textile industry with its annual EUR 18 Billion turnover has reached the same level as 40 years ago.

How come?

The answers can be found in some brilliant examples of innovations with respect to products – and most of all on innovation itself.

Smart textiles will have a huge impact in our daily lives in the near future. The Bauhaus University in Weimar has developed a sculpture made out of a cloth of woven solar cells. These will light the streets of the future. Smart textiles are able to filter toxins in the chemical industry or transform humidity into drinking water. They produce electricity, kill bacteria, heal wounds, and soon perhaps even save lives via intelligent monitoring of various vital signs and call for the doctor if necessary.

Roughly 27 percent of the industry turnover is made with new products. The key to this impressive figure is that out of bare cut-throat competition from low-cost countries the German companies had to move up-stream into high-tech fabrics and fibers for enterprise customers. These so-called technical textiles contribute 50 percent of industry sales. Some examples of leading companies in this business sector are Saertex in Münster, once a curtain weaver, now manufactures composite materials from textiles and plastics out of which rotor wings for wind turbines  are made. Or take Seiba that used to weave silk and is now manufacturing airbag textiles that are resistant against ageing and temperature.

All of these innovations would not have been possible without a change in the innovation mindset. The industry players were forced to co-innovate with companies from other industries, e.g. medical companies for developing a woven wound dressing that releases a contained drug only when it is in contact with a moist wound or construction companies to develop a facade of a textile-concrete material three times thinner and insulates just as well as standard materials  – but with less weight during transportation and construction, less CO2 emissions and the opportunity to design more delicate components.