Smart textiles revolution looms over Manchester

Manchester was known as ‘Cottonopolis,’ the world’s first industrial city, but could it soon become the thriving centre of a smart textiles revolution?

THE smog hits you instantly, obscuring your vision and covering your body in black soot. Your only relief is the sunlight coming through the windows, not that you’ll get to enjoy the weather any time soon due to your 16-hour shift. The machines await their next victims, as the lack of light and exercise in the factory breeds physically deforming accidents. Even still, an endless line of people are queuing up for the opportunity to work alongside you during the first Industrial Revolution.

That revolution saw steam and water power emerge, before electricity helped devise mass production in the second Industrial Revolution, and this was further enhanced with automation via the internet and IT in the third. Fast forward to today, where the fourth revolution of its kind is well under way, and it is starting with textiles.

Smart textiles revolution looms infographic

Tim Harper, of Tim Harper Graphene Investment and Consulting, said: “What we often find with these kind of revolutions is that it kind of starts of slowly, as the internet did for about 20 years, and then suddenly something happens and that’s when things get really disruptive.

“It is all about the intersection of the physical world with the cyber world. For the moment, they’re two separate things, so you do something on the computer for online and then you have physical things. However, as we bring more and more functionality into physical objects, and that could be anything from sensors to things that respond to the environment, these things shrink.

“With wearables, the first generation are things like smart watches that don’t do very much more than your phone in your pocket, except you have it on your wrist. The second generation is where you attach that to some kind of garment, but the third generation stuff is what I always call disappearables. With them, the functionality is actually embedded into the garment and invisible to the user.”

We are seeing smart devices being overtaken by wearables, with discreet and invisible sensors that can monitor even more data, thanks to cyber-physical systems. In other words, rather than having an Amazon Alexa, the technology becomes embedded in everyday physical objects like clothing. Instead of taking an LED, attaching it to a circuit and stitching it to a dress, which is exactly what companies like CuteCircuit are doing, we are seeing companies designing new forms of textiles or coating existing one to give added functionality.

In 2015, the World Economic Forum’s Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impacts report found that by 2022, 10 per cent of people will be wearing clothes connected to the internet, while almost all respondents expected this tipping point to occur by 2025.

This means the next five years are crucial in determining the potential of a marriage between textiles and technology, although critics question the feasibility of the time scale surrounding this objective.

“If you look at most technologies, it takes a good 10-20 years to get any results because you have to understand the science, how to make the stuff and how to combine it with other things to create some kind of functionality. That all takes time,” Harper said.

Job security

The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented change, a move from a predominantly agricultural to a predominantly industrial economy. What was proclaimed as progress, was also a cause of uncertainty and anxiety for Western society. People were fearful of unemployment, and were willing to work in terrible conditions so long as they got paid, especially when Greater Manchester’s cotton industry began its decline in 1945.

Now technology is making another series of human jobs redundant.

“If you look at the way artificial intelligence (AI) is being applied to professions like legal services and accountancy, everyone will sit back and say, ‘Oh no, they’ll never replace me with a machine,’ and they keep saying that until it happens. Everybody sort of wants to keep the status quo.

“The jobs that people at school will be doing in the future probably won’t have been invented yet, just in the same way that the whole IT industry didn’t exist 50 years ago. What you find is that the labour market kind of changes, but just because jobs are lost in one sector, doesn’t mean that the employment won’t be shifted into other ones.”

‘Everybody sort of wants to keep the status quo’

Up to one third of existing UK jobs are vulnerable to automation and AI by 2030, according to PwC. However, a huge number of opportunities are opening due to the intersection of the physical world with the cyber world, whether it’s based around improving production technology or understanding how consumers and customers use products.

 

Manchester

Supporting science and technological innovation is a vital aspect of constructing a Northern Powerhouse, and so new Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham aims to make the area a world- leading Digital City. He intends to ensure the region is an innovation utopia where such businesses are supported to succeed and jobs are decently-paid and secure.

Mark Pedley, founder and CIO of Smartlife Inc, said: “I know that the Manchester Mayor has an agenda to make the city the technological textiles capital of the world. Textiles started and grew in Manchester and there is a renaissance under way to bring it into the North West. “The whole journey that the textiles industry has gone through with LEDs, colour changing materials and various other innovation just keeps pushing the boundaries of what’s next. This new revolution says ‘Let’s hide all this technical stuff so that it does its job properly and nobody knows.’

“We are actually already doing what they want people to do with materials and technology. We’re very proud of being British and we’re very proud to be in Manchester.”

The region is still home to specialist individuals and businesses in both traditional and smart textiles.

However, despite the advances in science and the excellent facilities available, the research struggles to be integrated with the rest of the economy.

This contrasts with the 1830s, where so many goods were exported from Lancashire’s cotton industry, that ‘Manchester’ became the term used to describe cotton in parts of the British Empire.

Harper continued: “There’s still a lot of very good expertise in the North West that can be harnessed in a smart textiles revolution.

“I think putting money into this area is a very wise thing to do because you have a very good chance of stimulating a lot of home grown industry.

“Up to now, a lot of the textile industry has been driven by cost, which is why you end up with a lot of production been moved to places like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. However, the ability to create smart textiles and high value added applications of textiles, means that suddenly it starts becoming economically attractive to want to produce these new kinds of technologies.”

‘We’re very proud of being British and we’re very proud to be in Manchester.’

The cotton industry fell because high manufacturing costs made it cheaper to import goods from elsewhere.

The combination of textiles, technology and the fourth Industrial Revolution is a chance for Manchester to build on its textile roots, revive its global identity within the cotton industry, raise digital employment within the city, and keep the Northern Powerhouse at the forefront of innovation.

To succeed, Manchester needs to seize opportunities, create synergies with universities and technology transfer experts, and capitalise on the smart textiles revolution before another city beats them to it.

It has the skills, facilities and resources, but does it have the motivation to become the centre of the fourth Industrial revolution?

 


This post is the first feature in a three part series entitled, ‘The Textiles of Tomorrow.’ The series was written and designed in the style New Scientist for my Print Journalism Final Major Project in May 2017. Here’s the end product:

Smart textiles revolution looms

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