Insight materials science

Transforming industries with digital materials science

Cambridge-based technology company Alchemie Technology is aiming to transform industries with its innovative digital materials science technologies, starting with eliminating pollution from textile dyeing. Managing director Dr Simon Kew tells us more.  

Founded over five years ago by Dr Alan Hudd, Alchemie Technology is on a mission to bring the benefits of digital application technology to a broad range of industries – digitalising the fabrication of materials on a fundamental level. Inspired by digital ink-jet printing, Alchemie is pioneering the application of digital fabrication technologies to a significantly broader range of materials, ranging from high viscosity liquids to solid powders.

Its technologies are finding applications in many industries, ranging from aerospace and automotive to food and pharmaceuticals to paper and textiles. In all applications the principle is the same – delivering material only where it’s needed and all under digital control.

Alchemie Technology’s first major application is a breakthrough waterless smart dyeing process called Endeavour, which is poised to revolutionise textile dyeing by solving one of the world’s most pressing chemical pollution issues: the emission of dye-contaminated wastewater.

Reducing water consumption and contamination

The impact of textile dyeing on local water systems is severe. Not only does dyeing emit toxic dye-contaminated wastewater, it also consumes valuable local groundwater that could have been used for human consumption or farming. For each tonne of fabric produced, up to 50 tonnes of ground water is consumed and emitted as contaminated water.

Alchemie’s innovative new process uses advanced digital technology to precisely apply dyestuffs and energy to deliver perfectly dyed fibres without generating any wastewater.

The Endeavour waterless smart dyeing process technology was announced at the Interdye Conference in Shanghai, China in April 2019. Since then, Alchemie has been overwhelmed with customer enquiries from around the world.

The textile industry is looking to disruptive new technologies to transform the environmental footprint of textile dyeing as well as to significantly reduce operating costs."

“The announcement of Endeavour’s launch in China confirmed our expectation, that there is an enormous appetite for a less polluting, lower energy, lower cost textile dyeing process,” says Alchemie co-founder Dr Alan Hudd.

“In China, for example, some traditional dyehouses are being forced to close by the government due to their environmental impact and are also struggling to survive due to rising wages, wastewater costs and dye costs. As a consequence, much of the production capacity is now moving to Southeast Asia.”

However, this is not a long-term solution. Relocating the highly polluting dyehouses does not solve the environmental issue and the textile industry is looking to disruptive new technologies to transform the environmental footprint of textile dyeing as well as to significantly reduce operating costs.

Consumers are also increasingly aware of the impact of the textile industry on the environment and are demanding that brands move to more sustainable manufacturing practices rather than simply moving the problem to the next low-cost country.

Eliminating water creates a disruptive cost structure

At the heart of the Endeavour process is a unique new dyeing process that distributes dye molecules deep into the fabric enabling very high absorption, homogeneous distribution and energy efficient dye fixation. This results in zero dye wash out, even at very high saturation levels of dye, which means that the Endeavour process does not require any washing steps.

Elimination of the wash processes enables a reduction in water consumption and waste emission by over 95%. The Endeavour process is a single-pass roll-to-roll technology, which means that it has the capability to operate at an order of magnitude higher throughput than conventional technology (up to 100 m per minute); such that whole factory floors can be replaced by a few machines.

This enables a completely new cost equation to be created for the colouration of textiles, reducing overall costs by around 50%. The process can achieve the same dyed results with fewer materials, less energy and less labour. Increasing environmental legislation and charges will only serve to amplify this cost reduction.

Elimination of the wash processes enables a reduction in water consumption and waste emission by over 95%."

Single pass roll-to-roll inkjet systems are now well established commercially in the textile industry and Alchemie’s approach is building on this market acceptance. Endeavour uses its unique nozzle technology to deliver the dyestuff under digital control and each nozzle can be used individually such that a different amount of liquid dye can be delivered by each nozzle.

“What we’re able to do is jet dye deep into the fibres of the fabric, much deeper than conventional ink-jet, which can only colour the fabric surface,” Dr Hudd explains. “Once we’ve jetted the dye into the fabric, we use a precisely controlled application of energy to enable the dyestuff to rapidly penetrate the fibre, leaving no unfixed dyestuff behind.”

Whereas inkjet currently is only able to address around 10% of the global market for decorative printing, solid colour dyeing represents over 90% of the market, which corresponds to a market size for Endeavour dyeing equipment in excess of $10bn worldwide.

Flexibility to follow fashion

The fashion industry is by definition fast-changing, with key colours and styles all changing from season to season. The development process for clothing cannot keep up with the changing tastes of the consumer, as a typical product development timeline for a new article is around 18 months, and the demand profile after launch is characterised by large quantities required in short order timescales.

Once in production, current textile supply chains are sluggish, demanding large minimum order quantities and offering lead times in weeks and months rather than days. The flexibility that is required in fashion textile manufacturing is still an unsolved problem. Despite innovators such as Zara having pioneered short run manufacturing in the market, mass market fashion is still delivered by a supply chain that is not matched to the market demand.

The creative opportunities for designers are enormous and have yet to be explored because the technology is so new."

Endeavour is a digital process, which shares many advantages of digital inkjet in terms of configuration, set-up and control. The digital element of the technology means that the dyeing process can be directly connected with the digital supply chain – even the consumer demand signal such as an e-commerce buy “click”– to enable economic on-demand manufacturing of short runs. This capability dramatically reduces the turnaround time for prototyping new products in development and enables more agile supply chains that carry less inventory and reduce oversupply (this is what ends up on discount in retail).

Due to the digital nature of the technology, Endeavour is not limited to solid colours and shades, the system can be used to deliver unique patterns, two-tone effects, metallics and sided dyeing.

“The creative opportunities for designers are enormous and have yet to be explored because the technology is so new,” explains Dr Simon Kew, managing director of Alchemie Technology. “We have the capability to deliver many types of new visuals that may not be possible with conventional technology.”

Alchemie demonstrates its Endeavour waterless smart dyeing process.

What’s next for Endeavour

Alchemie has already produced and installed proof-of-concept/prototype machines. The company is planning to deliver the first commercial production machine lines in early 2020, and has already started working with industry strategic partners who are supporting the adoption of this disruptive new technology.

“Transformation of industrial textile manufacturing will not happen overnight,” says Dr Hudd. “However, the initial 50% operational cost saving means that, as capital payback typically occurs within less than one year, this technology is already very attractive to manufacturers, aside from the dramatic environmental benefits.

“The supply chain for textiles is complex and we have found the strongest pull from tier 1 suppliers to the key sustainability-focussed brands. Brands typically don’t manufacture dyed fabrics themselves but are increasingly willing to mandate the use of new technologies to their suppliers as the environmental issues take centre stage in global acceptability.”

The Endeavour process could enable colouration to be performed in-market and much closer to the consumer."

There is a period of significant change occurring in textile dyeing, and as traditional dyehouses are being replaced and relocated there is a major opportunity for innovative processes to replace the traditional dye bath technology. The Endeavour process could enable colouration to be performed in-market and much closer to the consumer, which has attracted brands to the idea of applying colouration at the same location as final product manufacture to reduce development cycles.

The overall textile market is at large scale with well over 400 billion square meters of fabric being dyed each year, and hence there is no shortage of opportunities for the technology. The key focus for Alchemie in the short term is in working with the right partners to commercialise the technology to ensure that it meets the needs of their end customers.

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