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Interview with Thomas Ong P S

Thomas Ong P S
Thomas Ong P S
NanoTextile Sdn Bhd
NanoTextile Sdn Bhd

Impact of COVID-19 on Malaysia’s tech textiles market mediocre to huge
Malaysian company NanoTextile Sdn Bhd taps into nanotechnology to offer a wide span of opportunities and possibilities in the textile industry. The company provides a complete solution of knit and woven fabrics, laminates and composites. Chief executive officer (CEO) Thomas Ong P S speaks to Paulami Chatterjee about the company’s preparations to tackle the crisis arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When was the company founded and who are the people behind its foundation?

Nanotextile was established in 2015 to spearhead the potential of nanotechnology after realising its opportunities for the textile industry. I took on the pioneer executive leadership and lead to a RM2.4-million textile technology and innovation start-up. A spin-off company, a joint venture between Nano Commerce Sdn Bhd which is the wholly-owned company of NanoMalaysia Bhd, with Nanopac (M) Sdn Bhd and a series of investors.

After the pandemic, there is expected to be a major change in lifestyle. How much will nanotextiles be a part of bringing about the change?

We are continuously providing technology services, which we do best. The only difference I am observing is the higher responsibility for us in bringing the change by assisting the industry to embrace functional textile manufacturing. We hope to build feasible business cases with more downstream business partners, brand owners and retailers to create a new range of their products focused on nanotechnology functionalities. In clothing textile market segment, different offerings to the consumers and clients are the focus proposition. I guess, this is my hope (or responsibility rather) in creating the change and catalysing the industry during the post-pandemic period.

How big is the impact of the pandemic on the Malaysian technical textiles market? What are the immediate concerns?

Like any other country, the impact on the textiles market in Malaysia ranges from mediocre to huge depending on how big your business is in the industry, be it in upstream or downstream businesses. The larger your business, the impact is bigger. We have observed similar downward trends in terms of sales value and consumer spending. However, on the technical textiles market in Malaysia, the growth per se just started in 2016. Hence, the overall impact in terms of value or size, is not as big as that of the industry as a whole. In fact, the immediate concern is how to functionalise products with value-added nanotechnology attributes to give additional properties or protection. We believe that would be the trend setter moving forward, and Nanotextile is here to match the industry gap of that realisation.

Tell us more about Nano-embedment technology and its usage in fashion?

Besides nano-composite manufacturing, we are focused on nano-embedment processes as well, i.e., we do the final finishing on to the textile product (fabric of which could be leather, cotton, PE, chiffon, etc) and optimisation of the embedment process is also done by us via our proprietary processes. The technology finishing differs from each other. An array of technologies we offer in the hygienic, care, comfort, protection, advanced and premium series. For example, the hygienic series would consist of the anti-fungus, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, self-cleaning and odor control technologies. Market segments we target are home, clothing, automotive, industrial and medical. Clothing textile sub-sectors are not limited to kidswear, women’s clothing and sportswear. 
By offering the nanotechnology embedment technologies and processes, we allow our clients to maintain their supply chain undisrupted. We come into the picture only at the final stage, before the final packaging.

How do the costs of producing nanotextiles weigh in relation to normal textiles? Is it a commercially viable method?

By maintaining the supply chain, it boils down to us—the clients and Nanotextile—to build the best feasible business case consisting of agreed upon terms like volume, exclusivity and contractual period to maintain our clients’ profit margin. We remain focused at enabling businesses while guaranteeing them the surge in sales on their new offerings to their customers. This business model is deemed by many of our existing clients as a friendly and approachable model without complex terms like royalty or profit sharing, making it commercially viable for many of them.

What are the measures the government is taking? Will there be any changes in the Third Industrial Master Plan (IMP3)?

Malaysia highlighted in its IMP3 that industrial and home textiles, functional fabrics, high-end fabrics and garments, and ethnic fabrics are growth categories of the largest established manufacturing sectors. Also, the textile and clothing industry in Malaysia is dependent on the import of raw materials, particularly for fabric manufacturing. However, as the industry shifts towards the manufacture of higher added-value products, Malaysia has the potential to develop industrial and home textiles, functional fabrics and high-value fabrics and clothing. The most important agenda to tackle would be the challenges in potentially localising raw material manufacturing to reduce dependence.

Since production of nanotextiles requires advanced machines, how do you maintain such machines in the long term? What special care is required?

We are dedicated to ensure our machinery is well calibrated and optimised. We do the optimisation check twice a year and maintenance once a year. There is no special care that is required, because our staff is trained to handle them. Furthermore, we do not exhaust our machinery with overproduction. Hence, the capacity of our production limits (or determines rather) the schedule and business commitments, unlike many other industries like electricals or electronics, where the businesses or contractual supply determine the production capacity.

Looking at the current situation, can nanotextile technology be used to make personal protective equipment (PPE)? If yes, what benefits will they provide over normal PPE?

Our technologies are compatible to both weaved and moulded products. We are working closely with the local authorities and agencies to assist frontline workers during the pandemic, on how to introduce additional protection using nanotechnology. We also participated in projects specifically on the service and supply of PPE and face masks coated with our proprietary technology, enhancing the anti-fungal and anti-microbial protection. This is the assurance we give to medical workers and volunteers that PPE and face shields are pre-sanitised before usage.

It is known that nanoparticles get released in the environment due to many factors, washing being one. In such a scenario, how can the life of nanotextiles be enhanced to make them wear and tear proof?

This is true for nano-finishing textiles and the durability is somewhat limited by how optimised are the nano layers with the fabric. However, most advancements are focusing at nano-composite and nano-fibre manufacturing. We are therefore dealing with yarns and weaving methods that are at nano size. The compatibility of the resultant fabric with nano-finishing is therefore stronger. Hence, the durability can be enhanced.

What are the limitations of nanotextiles that you are currently working on? How do you want to scale up their production in future?

We are working towards investment plans, both as an investor and investee. We are working on enriching our technologies by investing our efforts closely with our research partners. We are due to make an impact on more market segments this year alone as well as niche market segments like textile consumables and products for bed-ridden adults and autistic kids. Nanotextile is setting its sights on regional expansion. Hence, we are finally open to fund-raising ideas and initiatives to ensure the growth of the company.

We will also be launching a business strategy, a cushion strategic plan in which, we invite all our business partners to look into business plans and a new range of product rollout (client’s products), and  launch a new series (client’s series) focusing on nanotechnology functional wear when COVID19 subsides. This is our initiative to assist all brand owners and retailers to absorb the impact (size and/or effect) due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It would be a ‘1 Strategy 9 Benefits’ plan to curb and regain customer spending confidence.

What factors will play an important role in the development of nanotextiles based market in future?

I believe both acceptance factors by the industry and demand would play an important role in nanotextile’s development. We play a role in giving awareness to both upstream and downstream industrial players by continuously giving functional textile insights. Therefore, for the past five years, we are not solely focused on outright sales and services business. We are actively involved in conferences and seminars to ensure that these opportunities are not overlooked.

How do the textiles disintegrate once their life term comes to an end? Are they fully sustainable, nay circular?

I would like to perceive sustainability of a fabric or clothing as eco-fashion, whereby the sustainability concerns more than addressing fashion textiles or products. It comprises addressing the whole system of fashion and the usage of alternative raw materials like recycled cotton, organic linen, bamboo fibres, etc. I am fully supportive of circular economy and fashion revolution, which are the future of textiles. 

We also participated in an event jointly held by the ministry of international trade and industry and the ambassador of Sweden to Malaysia. Weaving the pathway to a better future, this fashion evolution is casting the future of textiles in a fashionable and sustainable way. While textile remains a commodity, the vital change the industry players could make is to make a change in the business model from a linear to a circular one, hence making it sustainable.

Last year, you had quoted that the nanotextile segment of technical textiles would have a double-digit growth rate during the next five years. Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is going to hasten things?

Yes, indeed. If we look at the prospects of downstream businesses, their market segments consist of clothing textiles, which has the highest contribution by value to the global textile industry. Globally on an average, sales plummeted by 8.7 per cent, the largest-ever fall on record. This is nearly triple the previous worst month on record in 2008. And clothing and brands took the biggest hit, dropping by a large 50.5 per cent. However, we always believe that textile industry isn’t a sunset industry and it is here to stay. My hope is to see the textile industry seeking to revive with a new growth engine based on high-tech products. In my opinion, COVID-19 has definitely created a sudden stroke to the industry in terms of development and advancement, while consumers are adapting to the new norm. Nonetheless, it would also be important for the industry to quickly adopt new technologies to stay relevant in the business.

Nanosafety is a growing concern. What are your thoughts on this?

It is important to address both technological advancements that nanotechnology brings forth and its societal challenges by strengthening research and innovation efforts, with increased emphasis on sustainable development, competitiveness, environment, health and safety. This shall come with a high degree of responsibility for engineered nanomaterials providers and manufacturers to ensure that the suspended nanomaterials are in compliance with standards and safety measures. Nanotextile technologies are certified and genuine ones.
Published on: 05/05/2020

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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