Sabine Scharrer, director of brand management, technical textiles and textile processing at Messe Frankfurt, told Just Style that this year attendees can expect the usual range of exhibitors from Techtextil, as one of the sector’s leading trade fairs.

Scharrer added: “In order to offer visitors maximum added value, we have planned a series of special shows. From the denim talks, which also focus on sustainable jeans production and processing, to performance apparels on stage with a spotlight on functional wearables, to the innovation awards, which honour the latest innovations.”

This year’s Techtextil event, which takes place alongside Texprocess from 23-26 April, expects to attract more than 1,600 exhibitors from 50 different countries worldwide. Attendees can also expect to see selected performance apparel on stage in a special show. Selected by an expert jury, the show will highlight innovations in technical textiles as clothing for protection in special or extreme situations.

The Techtextil Forum will also highlight some key themes for the sector across a number of expert talks. The talks will cover: Innovative materials and applications; sustainable and circular materials; biobased functional materials; intelligent materials; and digitalisation and production technology.

The need for digitalisation

Ahead of Techtextil 2024, digitalisation has already emerged as a key theme for exhibitors and attendees. Speaking at the event’s international press conference on 11 January 2024, Professor Thomas Gries, director of Institut für Textiltechnik of RWTJ Aachen University told attendees that the textile sector is at the cutting edge of digital innovation.

“The textile industry was always a pioneer in using digitalisation,” Gries explained. “But I would say 99.9% of companies still have a way to go.” A study conducted by the German Economic Institute in 2022 revealed that only 31% of companies in Germany are able to use data efficiently.

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While many companies still have a long way to go in embracing digitalisation, in the current climate we may start to see organisations innovating as a necessity. Elgar Straus, managing director of VDMA Textile Care, Leather & Fabric Technologies, told attendees at the press conference that digitalisation could help the textile sector overcome the widespread issue of labour shortages.

“We have labour shortages all over the world,” Strauss explained, adding that the other most pressing concern for many businesses is sustainability. “We have so many sustainability issues at the moment and we have customer questions about this. This really is a challenge for everybody.”

Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt agreed. He explained that “because we don’t have the workforce to do it by hand anymore in many, many countries,” and due to sustainable issues, “we will be more and more forced to bring production a little bit closer to the end customer”.

“Digitalisation is a must for the future of companies ­– not only in the textile industry, but other industries too,” Schmidt said. However, he acknowledged that some parts of the sector still have a way to go, adding: “To my knowledge, digital readiness is not a reality for all companies.”

Dealing with climate legislation

Climate legislation was another key concern that the panel thought digitalisation could help solve. In the coming years, products sold in the EU will need to be sold with scannable QR codes that provide customers with information about the materials, sourcing and supply chain involved in creating each item. The aim is to help customers make more informed choices.

Batteries are the first product which will need to comply with the rules, starting from 2026. Apparel is expected to follow soon after, with the rollout to different product categories due to take place between 2026 and 2030.

“To meet these requirements, I think it is essential to use digital tools,” Straus told attendees. “Based on the digital product passport, you need a very transparent documentation of your supply chain.”

Schmidt added that new climate legislation could force the textile sector to relocate parts of its supply chain. He explained: “That means we have to do production, but also recycling in high wage countries.” He explained this may include automatisation and digitalisation robotics that can help sort post-consumer textile waste for reuse and recycling. “We speak very often about face recognition, but we can also speak about fashion recognition.”

Institut für Textiltechnik’s Gries agreed that the demand for end-of-life solutions will be key for the textile sector in the coming years. He told attendees at the press conference: “The future will definitely be in closing the circle.”

Conflicting consumer demands

However, while legislation is pushing the sector towards sustainable goals, some other companies are feeling pulled towards cheaper, faster fashion.

“On the one hand, we have humans who have asked for more sustainability, on the other hand, we have consumers who are still looking for fast fashion,” Strauss told attendees at the press conference.

VDMA’s Strauss added that some fast fashion businesses, particularly Chinese companies, have been growing particularly fast in the last year, reflecting the growing demand for cheaper products. He also noted the growing prominence of e-commerce, which presents its own opportunities for further digitalisation of the supply chain.

With supply chains currently experiencing greater pressure due to ongoing disruption in the Red Sea, delays on the Panama Canal and turbulence in several key apparel manufacturing bases, Messe Frankfurt’s Schmidt told attendees that companies were increasingly being asked for flexibility.

Schmidt added that the need for greater flexibility extended from design through to production and even to recycling end-of-life products. He says this flexibility is something digitalisation can help provide.

One exhibitor at Techtextil will be showcasing an AI modelling system for fashion design, which also uses 3D modelling systems to modernise the design process, making it easier to adjust and update designs.

Gries added that he hopes to see companies at Techtextil and Texprocess not only demonstrating new smart textiles, but showing that they can also be mass-produced as well. “If you can’t produce them, they are just demonstrations,” he explained. He added that this next step will require real collaboration between experts in textiles and specialists in electronics.

Overall, Gries said that Techtextil provides the sector with a chance to consider solutions to these problems. He told attendees: “The main take-home message is managing transformation through collaboration.”