A “Silicon Valley” for Textiles — Taiwan’s Hidden Champions

Lynn Su /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byScott Williams
 
The many strengths of Taiwan’s textile industry point to a bright future. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The many strengths of Taiwan’s textile industry point to a bright future. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
 
Can you imagine a continuous, unbroken fiber that’s just one hundredth the width of a human hair, yet 10,000 kilometers long?
Ask most people what they know about the textiles sector and you’re likely to hear that it’s a dirty, dangerous “sunset industry.” But the fact is that Taiwanese businesses are integrating cutting-­edge technology into this age-old craft, and turning it into a new source of national strength.
 
 
Taiwan is in some ways the world’s textile mill. While we didn’t have a team in the 2018 soccer World Cup, 16 of those that played, including the German, Japanese, Moroc­can, and Egyptian teams, wore athletic clothing made from fabrics produced in Taiwan.
Such achievements have solidified Taiwan’s standing as a “hidden champion” in textiles.
 
Sophisticated technology hides within the ordinary looking warp and weft of modern fabrics. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Sophisticated technology hides within the ordinary looking warp and weft of modern fabrics. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
 
70% of performance fabrics
 
This isn’t the first time Taiwanese textiles have appeared at the World Cup. When Asia hosted the com­peti­tion for the first time in 2002, the South Korean team impressed viewers not just with its first appearance in the final four, but with its bright red uniforms. Taiwan’s Everest Textile provided the fabric for those uniforms.
That professional athletic wear is lightweight, breathable, long-lasting and tough is a given. Ideally, it also wicks away sweat, neutralizes odors, blocks UV radiation, is water-resistant, antibacterial and antistatic, and is able to retain all of these properties through numerous washings.
Taiwan began developing performance textiles sometime around the millennium, and now holds about 70% of the global market for performance fabrics used in sports and outdoor wear.
Achieving this level of success required several transformations. It began with the retreat of mainland Chinese textile companies to Taiwan with the Nationalist government, and their establishment here. But Taiwan’s lack of natural materials like cotton and wool caused the industry to refocus on chemical fibers.
Later, when our economy took flight and the cost of labor rose, the production chain began moving offshore. International brands relocated their purchasing to mainland China and the local industry’s output fell, setting off alarm bells in Taiwan’s business community.
Reflecting on that period, Taiwan Textile Federation secretary-general Justin ­Huang says, “The industry, and government agencies such as the Industrial Development Bureau and Department of Industrial Technology of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, were in agreement: Taiwan needed to develop new products that could open up ‘blue ocean’ markets.”
 
Justin Huang, secretary-general of the Taiwan Textile Foundation, relates the history of Taiwan’s textile industry from its early days through its ongoing evolution.
Justin Huang, secretary-general of the Taiwan Textile Foundation, relates the history of Taiwan’s textile industry from its early days through its ongoing evolution.
 
An industrial makeover
 
Determined not to fail, businesses large and small began truly transforming themselves in 2001. The de­velop­ment of chemical catalysts was crucial to the de­velop­ment of performance fabrics. To the surprise of many, Jintex, a Taiwanese firm, played a key role in creating these catalysts. It became the market leader in Taiwan when its efforts outstripped those of many major foreign firms. Local firms then took advantage of these new catalysts to revamp their raw materials, yarn spinning, fabric-making, dyeing and finishing operations, laying the foundations for the development of the performance fabrics industry.
The ratcheting up of international brands’ investments in Taiwan has enticed many local companies to bring their operations back from mainland China in recent years. In a further demonstration of the strength of the Taiwanese industry, household names like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour have even been partnering with Taiwanese companies to establish R&D centers.
 
Textiles have gone hi tech. The fiber in the photo is just 40 microns in diameter, yet has been cut and dyed with the Taiwan Textile Research Institute’s initials. The image was photographed at a magnification of 5000x. (courtesy of TTRI)
Textiles have gone hi tech. The fiber in the photo is just 40 microns in diameter, yet has been cut and dyed with the Taiwan Textile Research Institute’s initials. The image was photographed at a magnification of 5000x. (courtesy of TTRI)
 
This phosphorescent masterbatch (a component of yarn) developed by TTRI glows for five to six hours after just half an hour’s exposure to light. It is often used in specialized clothing, such as the uniforms worn by volunteers at the Universiade.
This phosphorescent masterbatch (a component of yarn) developed by TTRI glows for five to six hours after just half an hour’s exposure to light. It is often used in specialized clothing, such as the uniforms worn by volunteers at the Universiade.
 
TTRI: Textile’s one-stop shop
 
The Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI) looms large in discussions about Taiwan’s textile industry.
TTRI vice president Chen Hung-en greets us on our arrival at the organization’s headquarters in Tu­cheng, a southwestern suburb of Tai­pei. Few people outside the industry know that TTRI’s three buildings contain an entire production chain in miniature. As Chen jokes, the insti­tute is like a sparrow, small but perfectly formed. The labs are fully equipped and available not just to TTRI personnel, but also to textiles makers, who can use them to produce prototypes and do trial production runs, as well as to carry out inspection, testing, and certification.
More importantly, TTRI employs more than 300 professionals, two-thirds of whom hold advanced degrees. In addition to pursing academic research, the institute is a valuable partner and source of expertise that also trains industry personnel by providing classes to industry parti­ci­pants and lending out instructors to colleges and universities. In short, it’s a one-stop shop for answers to all of the most vexing textile-related problems the industry faces.
 
TTRI has a number of open labs. In the photo, a worker tests smart clothing.
TTRI has a number of open labs. In the photo, a worker tests smart clothing. 
 
The green-collar economy
 
The textiles industry has steadily advanced over the years, with technological progress and the rise of en­vironment­al­ism supporting its transition from con­ventional fabrics to performance fabrics. Moving forward, its ability to navigate the digital transformation and the emergence of the circular economy will be crucial to determining whether it is able to continue that growth into the next era.
Chen cites the energy-intensive dyeing and finishing processes as an example, explaining that TTRI experts have proposed two solutions to the large amounts of wastewater and pollution that they create.
The institute’s first proposal involves reordering the production process to perform dyeing at the fiber and yarn stages rather than the fabric stage. The second involves taking advantage of the digital age by using computers to match colors, and then precisely spraying those colors directly onto the surface of a fabric as if it were paper. Neither solution requires the use of large quantities of water.
Environmentalism isn’t just about the imposition of constraints on things like energy consumption and carbon emissions. It can also be an impetus for economic growth, as we learn when we visit Everest Textile in Tai­nan’s Shan­shang District.
 
Everest Textiles has developed cinder blocks that are not only cheaper than similar products, but can also be produced with zero emissions.
Everest Textiles has developed cinder blocks that are not only cheaper than similar products, but can also be produced with zero emissions.
 
A factory and an eco-park
 
The first thing you see on entering Everest’s 22-hectare compound is an eco-pond. Ducks swagger along the path beside the pond, completely unafraid of people. The buildings themselves are surrounded by tall trees and climbing vines, not at all what you would expect of a factory.
Everest has learned that environmental action doesn’t require deep knowledge.
The company runs its green initiatives on the principles of “simplicity, convenience, and low cost.” It began with the simplest of green measures, planting trees and vines. It also built four eco-ponds and installed large misters next to each building. Instead of paving its ­facility’s roads with asphalt, the company used water- and air-­permeable eco-bricks that it manufactured itself. Inside, it replaced air conditioners with energy-saving fans. Just one year after starting the green initiative, the company turned off all its air conditioners.
We enter the factory, which holds a diamond-level EEWH green building certification. The company used to run the factory’s chillers 24 hours a day to keep the temperature down, but since the renovations has shut them off and mothballed them. Now, it uses a water curtain and giant fans to cool the building. When you stand inside, you can feel the air moving gently.
It’s hard for people outside of the manufacturing sector to grasp the scale of a factory’s power consumption. That of a vertically integrated facility like Everest’s, which spins yarn, weaves fabric, dyes cloth, and assembles garments, is even higher, which makes its green initiatives all the more important, both for the environment and for the company’s bottom line. In fact, the renovations have saved it some NT$200 million per year.
 
Everest’s renovated factory no longer uses air conditioning, saving the company a great deal on its power bill.
Everest’s renovated factory no longer uses air conditioning, saving the company a great deal on its power bill.
 
The next step
 
In recent years, the industry has been anxiously antici­pating the rise of “smart” clothing.
Taiwan’s strength in the 3C industries provides it with an outstanding foundation for the development of such clothing. With supply chain partners already in place here at home, manufacturers needn’t seek them abroad. “It isn’t just that we have a robust textiles industry. Our information technology and electronics industries are also strong. The three together make for a superpowered combination,” says an optimistic Chen.
When the conversation turns to the circular economy, we discuss efforts to turn trash and waste into environmentally friendly yarns, as with Singtex’s coffee yarn (S. Café), Far Eastern New Century’s use of marine debris to produce PET yarn (TOPGREEN), and Camangi’s fish-scale yarn (UMORFIL).
Taiwan’s still largely unrecognized “other miracle” is that it recycles more than 50% of its trash. Not only does this figure rank third in the world, it is also aiding the development of our green economy. In fact, nearly 100% of Taiwan’s recycled PET bottles end up as raw materials at textile factories.
With Taiwan’s textile industry having leveraged its many strengths to enjoy a new heyday, who can say that traditional industries have no future? “There’s no such thing as a ‘sunset industry.’ It’s all a matter of how hard you’re willing to work,” observes Chen.
 
The greening of Everest’s facility earned it a rare “eco-community” certification.
The greening of Everest’s facility earned it a rare “eco-community” certification.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama