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CEO Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA)
What is your take on smart clothing? What will be the next big thing in this domain?
We have something called the dumb system; there is nothing smart to the clothes that we wear. Everything else that we use has become smarter and smarter. All our electronics from telephones to watches have become smart. Everything portable that we use is more intelligent and smarter. The challenge for the apparel industry is multiple.
First, we need to incorporate a platform on which we can build a technology that can help us be more aware. We need to have clothing that can educate and inform by adding sensors and integrating systems into our apparel. That is a big challenge because it blurs the line between hardware and software - what is apparel and what is electronics and what are the other supporting technologies in the industry that we need to be good at for this to work. So, there are a lot of opportunities in this area. But I think the first movers will win significantly in this race and some brands will move fast enough and have good opportunities and a fair market share.
What major research projects is the institute currently working on? Can you please share a few details?
Well, you just touched on one - wearable technology. The challenge here is with energy management of the wearables. We are working on battery technology and energy harnessing. We are also working on lot of waterless technology and we hope to achieve a breakthrough in the next couple of years. Besides that, there are projects on automation in the more complex parts of what we do like computerised and intelligent sewing along with fast and accurate ways of operations. These are easy to say but very hard to do. We continue with sustainability too in terms of circularity, low energy and low carbon manufacturing.
What new fibres and fabrics are researchers experimenting with?
We are doing lot of work around replacement of petroleum-based synthetics. Cellulose as a new resource of plastics is the area we are working on. We are also working on new types of green material, which are things we don't think of commonly as a source of fabric like agricultural waste, recycling of material and biodegradable material. We are working in a lot of different directions. We also have a huge area of work on high performance material for industrial applications also.
How many patents does the institute hold so far?
We hold about 200 patents. The pace of innovation is moving so rapidly that in most cases by the time we file the patent, we are already working on that. So, the patent system is not keeping up with the pace of innovation. We think that going forward there will be hybrid or some critical pattern applications in the future.
Do you have any groundbreaking innovations to be disclosed this year?
This year, first of all we want to focus on industrial scale innovations, a lot of which we have done in the past at lab scale. We want to get that into the markeplace faster. We want reasonable and practical business cases behind them. Things that are new need to have the market for them and have to be priced, so that the market considers those reasonable.
We will also try some new interfaces with consumers with more and more intermediation in the marketplace, in which a lot of things connect directly to consumer. We want to try and see if we can have a consumer-to-business (C2B) model, where the consumer is driving everything, i.e., we don't make anything but we sell before we make the model. Then with digitisation, we want to see instead of selling clothes, can we sell concepts. These are the business models we will be looking at and in the fall of 2018, we will announce some of these. We will be opening stores in the real world to try and see how it works.
You are conducting some research with the H&M Foundation. Can you tell us about its progress?
The H&M Foundation and HKRITA entered into a four-year research agreement about two years ago to conduct a series of research around post-consumer recycling products. The most difficult challenge in the marketplace is to deal with things that are typically thrown away by customers or the things that are really hard to recycle because they are blended, dirty or damaged. The question is how we can find new and high-value uses for such things.
It is not a matter of how these things can be recycled but to up-cycle those and retain their values. We have announced a series of hydro-thermal results for separation of materials. This year, as we approach the middle of our research agreement, we will be focusing on commercialising the early research results just like what we do in the rest of the institute, and ideas that we have missed or results that are important; something we can refine and do better. There is a lot of work ahead in the next two years for us.
What is the focus on research by the government? How does the Hong Kong Government support research?
The Hong Kong Government has funded us under the innovation and technology fund. What they want us to do is to create a new road for Hong Kong. Hong Kong basically today does not manufacture; we did that 50 years back. Today, it is the logistic and banking hub. Therefore, what the government likes us to do is to add innovation role to all of this. We went from being manufacturers to the logistics hub and to the financial hub. Can we add value by being the innovation hub? In short, we have something that keeps Hong Kong as the strategic business hub.
For innovation and technology fund, I think, in round numbers the government funds about $ 4.5 billion. We are one of the four applied research centres that pull money from the innovation and technology fund. Basically, the government is happy to provide funds to us for most reasonable researches. We never have had any shortage of funding for research and overheads.
What is the strength of your research centre?
We are a hybrid model. We have about 60 people at the centre, about 20 administrators and 40 research scientists. We are also a funding agency for other research centres or universities. If we see something that is happening in the lab or the university, then we go and work there to fund their research for the next three to four years. For that effort we have about 300 research scientists in various labs. We have about 60 ongoing projects. The government lets us use half of the funds for supporting research abroad. We have funded research projects in universities in Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. We go wherever there is new science. We try to pick up 20-30 most strategic, important and urgent ideas every year and work on them.
Are you planning to expand your current capacity?
We are trying not to create too much overhead. We want to be as efficient as we can with our research fund. There is a lot of room for research but the challenge for us on one hand is to stay focused on critical topics and on the other hand, be aware of what the emerging challenges are and then pivot when the need arises. (HO)
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