Interview with Edwin Keh

Face2Face
Edwin Keh
Edwin Keh
CEO
Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA)
Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA)

We focus on wearable tech, automation, energy harnessing, low carbon manufacturing
The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) was established in April 2006 to enhance Hong Kong's cutting edge. HKRITA has the funding support from Innovation and Technology Commission under the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government. HKRITA is also supported by institutes, companies and associations in the textile and clothing industry in Hong Kong, mainland China and other countries. CEO Edwin Keh converses about the latest and future projects at the institute.

What areas of research in textile and apparel does HKRITA focus on?

HKRITA is an applied research centre and is not publicly-funded. We focus on four main domains: fibres and textile materials; manufacturing, i.e. machinery and technology; testing standards, methods and equipment; and supply chain solutions.
Three broad themes cover those domains. The first is sustainability, which includes how to make things greener, cut waste out of the industry, and water and energy conservation. Here we conduct research on waterless technologies, waste treatment, and low energy consumption and in general, on how to make things more benign. 

Our second theme is improving the efficiency and competitiveness of the industry. We work on finding new supply chain solutions and anything that could help the industry get better, faster and more cost-effective.  

The third theme is working in line with helping the industry evolve with society. For instance, healthcare, community care, elderly care, self-cleaning and self-sterile materials and things that are protective in nature. The reason why we are interested in this is the result of a large survey that we conducted in the industry a while back. We basically went and asked the stakeholders about the challenges they faced and the areas they would want more help with.  And these areas came up over and over again. All of our projects come from these major themes, when we talk of circularity and recycling.  

What have been the top three research studies and innovations at the institute in the last decade?

Let me tell you about our award-winning projects that we received recognition for. Our new technology that won a lot of recognition is a new way of spinning cotton whether it is long or short or of lower quality. But the way we spin it makes it appear more luxurious and gives an improved hand-feel without mercerizing it. It is not yet widely known and used in the industry. 

A couple of years ago we won a significant award for the HTT system, a hand touch system for fabrics. It is a multi-sensor system that takes the fabric and gives numeric value to hand-feel. This is to mimic the way that somebody would touch the fabric that will give a number to how much he would transfer in terms of friction and the other characteristics associated with it to give a consistent numeric value. That was very popular and useful especially for manufacturers who are working in multiple locations and deal with very long global supply chains. People were able to talk about hand feel and check the product in an objective quantifiable manner rather in a subjective way, which is very important. 

This year we have several award winning projects. Our series of recycling projects has received a lot of attention. We have been able to develop a hydro thermal system. We basically use heat and pressure only to pull polyester and cotton. The advantage of our system that we announced last year is that the same process separates the material. Polyester comes out in a recovered fibre form and so it does not have to be melted and we can switch them back into the fibre. Moreover, it is cost-effective and a practical recycling method. The other breakthrough is that it is such a gentle and benign process, it does not damage the fibres, the molecular weight of the polyester is the same and cotton maintains a lot of its original performance characteristics. The announcement was done last year and now we are in the process of industrialising the project.

Which regions globally are pro-active when it comes to experimenting with new textile and garmenting technologies?

We have so far found interest globally. But in the consuming countries, because of consumer pressure and interests, we see lot of immediate interest from Europe and the United States. This is because the brands and companies in general are under lot of retail pressure to demonstrate sustainable products and socially acceptable supply chains. That is to say from one extreme, which is at the retail customer level. Then there are other interests from the raw material processing countries, because that is where a lot of the waste water and harsh chemicals are being used in the process. If you think about this, then the process of making of garments is actually quite benign. So, on both the extremes of the supply chain, we have been applying our interest.

What are your thoughts on Industry 4.0 in textile and apparel industry? Where is the adoption rate higher - ginning, spinning, weaving, knitting, processing, cutting & stitching and packaging?

The application of Industry 4.0 in the fashion industry from the manufacturing point is low in terms of technology used. It is still labour-intensive as compared to the heavy industry, which is more capital intensive and so automation came a lot earlier. I think players in the fashion industry are late adopters. That is because for so long there has been much emphasis on the art and not enough on the science. It all depends on how designers see things. It has always been hard to quantify and make this into an extended process that is fast, responsive and scientifically more disciplined.

But I think with globalisation of the fashion market, especially in emerging countries like China and India, with the challenges of the apparel market being crowded, oversupplied, and the demand for stability, the marketplace seems to be more coefficient and makes less waste in the process. 

There are more and more industry 4.0 ideas coming into the fashion industry. But the challenge for the industry is not just the physical supply chain but much more about how we use data and innovation in the supply chain. We need to make more predictive analytics and make sure that it gets shared on the supply chain and remains transparent. Also, for Industry 4.0, the premise is on computerisation and automation, which is still low in terms of penetration. So for many parts of the apparel industry, it is not so much about switching to industry 4.0 but catching up with Industry 3.0.
Published on: 23/07/2018

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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