From LAN party to textile research
Fabian Schreiber was 23 when he founded his first company. Initially he held network parties and organised PC seminars for senior citizens. Both activities might come to his aid in his future work as head of a textile-research institute. An interview about the tardy digitalisation of the textile industry, greater courage for change, and Spiderman.
Dr. Schreiber, you founded Gemini Business Solutions when you were still young. What was your motivation, and what does the business actually do?
My twin brother and I had this dream even early on about designing things. So we founded Gemini. We started by organising LAN parties and computer seminars for older people; later we added medical technology: Gemini is the EU representative for US manufacturers, introduces their products in Europe and distributes them. Even now that is one of our main business areas, and it is continuing to grow.
Later you founded ARK Industrie AG, an automation-service supplier, specialising in the digital transformation of textile firms. What is your experience of the way in which digitalisation meets a traditional industry?
When ARK started up in 2014, digitalisation and Industry 4.0 were still relatively new subjects. So the rather cautious textile producers took an equivalently long time to react to it. Even if many managers may well have recognised the potential, they often waited to see what was happening in other industries. That has changed now.
So the textile industry is on a sound path of digital automation?
Automation has already been underway for a long time, and the larger textile companies are already well into it. But up till now small and medium-sized firms have been automating too sporadically. When it comes to digitalisation, however, I see fewer differences between large and small businesses. It is rather the focus which differs in these cases: while big companies are pushing forward with the networking of production and sales, smaller firms are implementing concrete digitalisation projects and thus solving individual tasks in their operations.
Where do you see room for digitalisation to catch up?
The biggest challenge in digitalisation consists of developing future-capable business models. At the moment many textile firms are too little engaged in the modernisation of their sales channels and up-to-date online trading. Everything doesn’t have to go via Amazon. The retail trade and medical technology are already further on in that respect. Both sectors have recently opened up new sales channels, to be competitive in the face of major trading houses. Some medical-technology firms have completely revamped their customary sales channels. I see the same sort of potential for the textile industry, since in that sector many firms are highly specialised market leaders in niche segments.
Are the textile producers having more trouble with digitalisation than other industries?
Absolutely, yes. And I think, for two reasons. Firstly, the industry has a very conservative mentality and tends to be cautious; and secondly, it finds it hard to collaborate with other businesses within its own industry or from the service-provision sector. There is often a good deal of fear that their own specialised knowledge will go astray. But I see great opportunities precisely in joint textile ventures. If the German, or even the European textile firms would come together – and I mean both the mechanical-engineering side and the producers – they would have an enormously strong position in the face of competition outside the EU.
What would your vision be of an optimally situated 4.0 textile industry in 2030?
The European textile-machinery manufacturers will have joined together and developed a communication standard for networked, machine-independent production. Now all businesses, along the whole textile chain, can offer ready-to-use semi-finished products for future sectors such as mobility, medicine and construction. Via software platforms specialised brokers will sell complete solutions – in much the same way as with trade businesses and real estate – with delivery date, price, product information, etc. And in 2030 smart textiles will get their final breakthrough and clothing will communicate with electronic equipment as a matter of course.
For almost two years you were head of the “Sozio Tech” newcomers research group at the Institute for Textile Technology at RWTH Aachen University. This group concentrated particularly on the development of innovations for man-machine interaction. What did this work produce?
Working with a fantastic team, I developed an assistance system up to prototype which was designed to introduce older people to digital technology in the textile sector. The system communicates with textile machinery, visualises data, and gives step-by-step operating instructions. Younger workers likewise benefit from it, since in this way even inexperienced staff can operate the machines directly.
Since the start of the year you have been the new director of the Thüringen-Vogtland Textile Research Institute (TITV Greiz). A generation change?
I am following on from an outstanding predecessor, Dr. Möhring, who – working jointly with an excellent staff – positioned the institute very well over a period of nearly 20 years. The research profile as it related to smart textiles in particular was immensely sharpened in this time. When Dr. Möhring took over the job, he was more or less the same age as I am today. I would be proud if in 20 years people could look back on my work at the Institute and recognise comparable incentives and successes.
What detailed priorities do you intend to set?
I think the current focus on smart textiles and their testing is well chosen. Of course, given technological change, I would like to contribute my own many years of experience in the fields of digitalisation, automation and digital business models.
You often hear that German textile research is top of the league internationally. Is that really so? Why do we hear and read so little of textile innovations?
Yes, textile research here continues to enjoy a top international position. But it is also true: other countries are catching up very rapidly, not least China. And yes, the industry, and especially textile research, is finding it hard to showcase its innovations in a media-effective way. Often the spotlight falls on user industries as innovators, such as the automotive, aerospace and medical sectors, when at its core the reportage is actually about new developments in textiles. In this respect the industry could work more on branding its own products and research results.
What, in your view, will the textile industry need to cope with in the coming years if it is to maintain its competitive position?
Above all, the lack of skilled workers may very well get worse, particularly on the production side. Companies are, for instance, desperately looking for machine operators. Research could help here, with mobile applications perhaps, or clothing with a support function, so that a machine operator can run several textile machines in parallel. Digitalisation will stay a key factor, which textile firms should utilise to keep Germany as a producer country and to extend its profile further.
Are there any milestones in the textile industry over the last years which have impressed you?
I am amazed every time I fly in an Airbus A380 and think how much textile technology has gone into it. As a superhero and science-fiction fan I am fascinated by smart and functionalised textiles – meanwhile functions of the type you see in Spiderman’s suit already exist to a similar extent in modern firemen’s suits.
Mr. Schreiber, many thanks for the interview.
Title picture: Dr. Fabian Schreiber (source: Digihub/Paint the Town)