Few manufacturers of carpets worldwide are willing to accurately predict what the industry would look like even a decade from now. Technology, sustainability and social media might together decide what the future holds, writes Jozef De Coster from Ghent, Belgium.

Its difficult predicting which carpet manufacturers will still exist a decade from here. All carpet manufacturers face three different revolutions: a technological revolution, a sustainability revolution and the social media revolution. Size matters. Large carpet groups like Shaw Carpets and Mohawk Carpets (US), Oriental Weavers (Egypt), and Balta and Beaulieu (Belgium) have the financial clout and the brainpower to defend their leading position. But, in this era of multiple disruptions, maybe flexible small players and startups will appear to be the fittest.

During the last two decades, the share of carpets in the worldwide production and consumption of floor coverings has strongly decreased in favour of hard types of flooring. Was this an unavoidable trend? Or, did the marketers of the carpet industry make some major errors? Some observers think that the Western carpet industry is too much a man's industry (they could be right: probably not more than 10 per cent of the 220 carpet manufacturers and suppliers who in June 2017 attended the 6th World Carpet Congress were women), and that therefore the industry did not listen well to the voice of the women, the main decision makers for purchase of interior products.

Anyway, if the carpet industry wants to maintain or increase its market share, it will have to find the right responses to at least three major challenges: the transition to an Industry 4.0 network, the transition to a sustainable industry, and the transition from an unchallenged information monopolist to a social media specialist.

Carpets to be made in 'smart factories'

Consultants, trade associations and system suppliers all insist that carpet manufacturers should move as fast as possible to the level of Industry 4.0. But what is Industry 4.0? It's the new form the industry is taking after the three previous historical phases, symbolised by the mechanic shuttle weaving machine (Industry 1.0), the mass-manufactured automobile (Industry 2.0) and the personal computer (Industry 3.0). Using modern carpet tufting and rug weaving machines, Western manufacturers perfectly know that they have to make soft floor coverings.

Now the challenge is to combine the existing technology with advanced information technology, like cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Cloud. Carpet factories must evolve to 'smart' factories where cyber-physical systems via the Internet of Things permanently cooperate with each other, and yes, also with the people of the factory. Via the Internet of Services the cyber physical systems will also be connected with the total supply chain, from supplier to consumer.

Digital carpet printing is the logical result of the ongoing digitalisation of the carpet industry. It could be noticed that several companies with interests in digital printing acted as sponsors of the World Carpet Congress in Ghent (Tanatex, DyStar, Atexco). In August 2016, Tanatex was acquired by Zhejiang Transfar Co Ltd from China. Colour technologies seem to be highly attractive for Asian investors. Also, the current shareholders of DyStar are Asian companies: Longsheng from China and Kiri Industries from India. By the way, the analogue print industry (33 billion sq m/year) is still much bigger than the fast growing digital print industry (1 billion sq m/year).

What about cyber security and totally integrated and connected smart factories? One can be sure that hackers will be tempted to prove that they are smarter than the smart factories. Using the Stuxnet worm, American and Israeli hackers succeeded in sabotaging ultra-centrifuges in Iran. Russian hackers switched off part of the electricity grid of the Ukrainian capital Kiev and sabotaged TV broadcast systems.