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Biomaterials Shaping Technology


In his latest piece for WhichPLM, Yotam Solomon (resident WhichPLM Expert) discusses the development of cradle-to-cradle biomaterials, and the correlation between this and technological advancements. “It is our duty to invest in sustainable technology development”.

As a designer and material innovation professional, I believe that the future of biomaterial innovation directly correlates to technology innovation in all aspects of our lives. Creating wellness beyond the renewable element will organically become part of products’ performance metrics that will enhance our lives in many ways. Fashion products will do more than cover our bodies; products will add value to our health, improve our time management, work with our digital devices, contribute to our overall beauty, and even clean the environment, instead of polluting our planet.

Materials are the basic building blocks of everything in our world. Even our bodies are composed of materials; more specifically, consisting of biomaterials that vary in molecular type. When we study the human body, we find that we are all made of water, liquids, proteins, fats, connective tissues, glucose, glycogen, and, of course, DNA. The commonality for all of these biomaterials is that they are all cradle-to-cradle (C2C) materials. Since C2C materials are naturally organic, this guarantees they are fully renewable and superior to other materials lacking this quality. Biomaterial advancements could completely reshape our lives the way smart cellular devices have changed the digital generation. Imagine the very first ‘little black dress’ of wellness, reflecting the way it was made, the way it improves someone’s life, and the way it will be repurposed when it reaches its end of life cycle. The conversation is moving away from renewable energy resources to how technology improves every aspect of the product’s make, use, and re-use. Imagine if this world’s industries were made out of renewable biomaterials? There would be no waste!

The big question is: how do we develop biomaterials that are fully renewable, organic, and therefore C2C? How do we create a sustainable supply chain from creation to end-of-life cycle? To start, we have to rethink the way we farm and produce our raw materials. In fashion, natural materials are farmed from plants that include cotton, hemp, linen, flax, and ramie. Other natural materials that come from animals include wool, silk, down, leather, and fur. All these plant and animal materials can be C2C renewable biomaterials if grown organically and locally. Subsequently, these materials can become renewable products if the manufacturing process to create components complies with C2C standards in the entire production chain. Current production of organic raw materials yields high costs as C2C production methods are not utilized by most companies. Costs will depreciate as more companies utilize better technology and ethical manufacturing processes. Many governments have started offering tax incentives for companies to develop sustainable materials and better technology solutions as new environmentally friendly laws and regulations take shape.

Big corporations and start-ups are responsible for creating revolutionary new materials. They are needed for ethical and regulatory green standards, as these materials can reshape every aspect of our industrial process. It is important that the entire product lifecycle of these materials is eco-friendly, starting from the farming, water usage, electricity source, machinery, raw materials, and even distribution and packaging. Creating a sustainable product lifecycle simplifies product lifecycle management (PLM), which can dramatically reduce costs.

Companies are investing into material innovation research that focuses on biology, chemistry, nanolithography, and engineering. How do we, as an industry, utilize a cleaner source of electricity? One solution is a seaweed-based bio-crude, which is engineered to replace petroleum oil.  Seaweed oil is being developed by associate professor Khanh-Quang Tran at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Unlike the conventional petroleum oil production, seaweed can be farmed within minutes all around the world with no pollution. Developing biomaterials as energy sources is just the beginning; it opens the door for the engineering of smart textile functionality. Functionality is limitless, ranging from temperature control, breathability, fiberoptic computing to advanced color changes. These functionality metrics are already being developed for fashion products.

Next, how can we use biodegradable packaging? One solution is Ecovative, a New York based biomaterial company that has invented packaging made from renewable grown mushroom material. There are many raw materials that can be developed into products with C2C engineering and regional manufacturing. Therefore, it is our duty to invest in sustainable technology development.

One of the most talked about technologies is 3D manufacturing. How do we use the existing material innovation with technology advancements to create 3D mass-production solutions? Nowadays there are many machines that combine complicated weaving and knitting operations to create 3D fabrics. This production is utilized for manufacturing complex fabrics in the mattress industry and others. However, this production method is not advanced enough to create a completely seamless garment for fully constructed 3D clothing.

The first research and development company based in California that created a 3D garment-printing machine was called Electroloom. Electroloom developed a 3D fabric printer using an electro-spinning concept to create a seamless garment around a custom mold. Electroloom has thus far released a prototype; it is my belief that the next generation 3D garment printer would be based on the same concept but reworked to eliminate the mold to create streamlined production. Unfortunately, research and development is very costly and even with grants and investors many revolutionary companies like Electroloom could not sustain the heavy financial costs. This is the reason to increase government grants to assist start-ups in the biomaterials sector as these companies need help, now more than ever before, in creating materials and machinery. Electroloom was the first to create a 3D printer prototype, but other advancements in 3D printing have been made, such as the fiber growing method developed by Suzanne Lee, a former Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Arts, turned Creative Director at Modern Meadow, based in New York. The process invented by Lee involved cellulose-spinning bacteria that grows fibers that can be dried into sheets. The process generates either lightweight or heavyweight fabrics depending on the processing. This process can generate a seamless garment by draping, which could then be developed into 3D printing. Modern Meadow is a pioneer in developing new biologically advanced materials. The company is the first to produce bioengineered leather, as part of their unique bio-fabrication platform that delivers sustainable animal products without harming animals or the environment. Modern Meadow’s technology fits into C2C standards as it develops technology advancements that are fully renewable and based on natural materials and chemicals. There are no limits to what 3D printing could achieve with advancements in C2C biomaterial innovation.

Biomaterials are also required for the make of physical machinery that produces all products. Developing suitable biomaterials to construct the next generation 3D weaving and knitting machines will make the machinery itself C2C. Today many factories operate with sewbots (automated sewing machines), which do much more than just sewing. Sewbots perform cutting, stitching, sewing, folding, pressing, and even packing. These operations consist of the entire factory assembly line, all without any human interaction aside from engineering personnel and minimal machinery upkeep. It all works seamlessly as long as the electric power is on. Today’s machines are made from different types of metals and plastics, assembled through conventional production methods.

During the upcoming years, all machines will be made using biomaterials with modern 3D and 4D printing methods. One example of the direct relationship between materials and automation is happening at the Innofa Factory – a Netherlands based factory specializing in stretch textiles and mattress fabrics. The family owned business aims to develop high standards of sustainability and achieve C2C solutions. Innofa developed a system where rainwater is captured and used to process fabrics. Factory energy is recycled and used again in the finishing process. At the same time, Innofa is entering the smart knit market in apparel and currently working on an exciting new project with a textile professional, Waulthers Huub, to develop a new 3D knit fabrication.

Automation could completely transform the conventional retail experience, replacing human sales staff with intelligent shopping bots. This automation will cater to consumer personal tastes and evaluate products according to suggested metrics. In many ways, full automation is already happening, as robots are essential to the operation of many distribution companies. This has created a completely seamless and efficient pick-and-ship processes with minimal human interaction. The next steps involve creating a seamless buying experience for both online and brick & mortar businesses.

Aside from retail automation, there is much more standardization and adaptation needed to modify farming, manufacturing, and distribution logistics. Eventually, fashion apparel and accessory products will be 3D printed and custom made for each consumer to eliminate wasteful mass production of generic products. These 3D custom products will be fully compostable and have end of life cycle processes that will allow them to decompose into natural debris. In our current industry, most third world factories and sweatshops do not provide appropriate salaries to labor workers. Seamstresses make below living wages, so it is essential to find the blue-collar careers for the next generation that pays decent salaries.

Our industry standards are evolving; retailers used to promote private label merchandise that allowed for more business and eliminated wholesalers or distributers, therefore generating higher margins. With online sales taking over by Amazon, strategy is not about margins but about cash flow, taking margin drivers out of the equation. Trends that allow for mass sales while targeting consumer needs will most likely prove to be a winning strategy in the next few years. Biomaterials are the future and material innovation will change every aspect of our lives, by transforming our industries, consumer habits, and environmental sustainability.

Yotam Solomon Yotam Solomon is a fashion designer and product developer focusing on cradle-to-cradle (C2C) innovation in apparel and footwear. Yotam draws inspiration from the natural environment; he has designed collections based on the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and on the relationship between prescribed drugs and its effect on our DNA.His approach to design goes beyond the aesthetic of a product; it’s about supporting people, building an economy, and preserving and enriching our natural resources. By working with mass manufacturers and smaller production houses, Yotam initiated new research and development projects to eliminate toxic chemicals from today’s manufacturing process.Yotam brings insight about the relationship between sustainable design and the purchasing habits of the end consumer, and serves on our Expert panel as a sustainable fashion design expert.