U.S.-produced specialty fabrics earned a rightful spot in the global marketplace. Success contributes to the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s export pledge. Both the occasion and the industry provide cause for celebration, indicates Stephen Warner, president and chief executive officer of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

Mention U.S. textile manufacturing and people typically think of an industry in decline. The narrative involves an overseas production shift that has resulted in shuttered U.S. factories and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs in the last decade.
But hidden within this story is a far more positive sub-plot – and it involves a segment of the domestic textile manufacturing base that has not only survived decades of bad trade policies and relentless import pressures but now thrives: specialty fabrics.

Specialty fabrics keep first responders safe in fire-resistant protection suits and anti-ballistic vests. The high-tech flexible materials also protect our environment: They provide containment of toxic wastes, ensure quality drinking water and prevent shoreline erosion. In addition, these multi-layered composite products are used in new pavement technology to rebuild our nation’s vulnerable infrastructure, as well as in the lightweight, ultra-strong fabrics deployed in life-saving airbags, and the shade provided in playground structures that keep our children away from the harmful rays of the sun.

The domestic specialty fabrics industry moved forward through quiet emergence. Now it speaks loud, as it offers globally competitive products conceived through constant innovation. Indeed, it seems that each day finds new applications for the diverse material. These U.S.-made fabrics play a vital role in supporting our armed forces. Most recently, they’ve been deployed to protect the environment through oil boom containment systems used in the Gulf oil spill disaster. Also, the fabrics represent key components in the automotive and construction industries, and they’re absolutely critical as America takes the lead in developing innovative “green” and sustainable initiatives.

Material suppliers and manufacturers reside in every state. It’s time we recognize specialty fabrics as a distinct and essential industry segment.

Averting Threat

For this industry to remain at the top of its game, we need government commitment to support product development and keep the domestic market a fair place to do business. Let’s not “trade” away this industry. The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) is concerned about several provisions in the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) that congress now considers. The proposed agreement could have a devastating impact on this emerging industry. The cost could include the loss of more American jobs, as well as the loss of key emerging domestic and export opportunities.

IFAI is particularly concerned about illegal transshipments from other low-cost Asia Pacific countries through Korea, an enforcement issue not satisfactorily addressed by KORUS. The textile enforcement division at U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seen such a devastating reduction of resources that it is now woefully understaffed and underfunded to ensure adequate compliance that would protect the domestic industry from these illegal transshipments.

Today, just as important as keeping the playing field level in the United States, we need greater government support to continue promoting domestic-made products in overseas markets. It’s ironic and telling that government specialists dedicated to promoting domestic overseas textile exports are actually organized within the “import” section of commerce. The mindset needs to be changed. Our attitude should be that we are not just an industry seeking to protect the domestic industry; we are an industry energetic and ready to do battle out in the global marketplace.

Significant Market Challenges

We have formidable competition in the overseas markets. Both the Chinese and German governments provide billions of dollars for companies that invest in their domestic specialty fabrics industry. The Korean government allocated $16 billion for specialty fabric manufacturing projects and another $5.6 billion on core technology for the local production of composite fibers and nano-textiles.

The major battleground—the region that especially attracts our overseas interests—is in the Asia Pacific. Emerging countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are becoming major consumers of specialty fabrics. The growing middle-class population in India equals the entire population of the United States, and it’s hungry for the products that use U.S.-made specialty fabrics. High-valued end markets including military, automotive, safety and functional apparel, medical, environmental protection, and wide-format printing are demanding more sophisticated specialty fabrics. As such, the building and construction outlook is robust. “Green” applications such as renewable energy and water conservation are necessary as the population demands quality-of-life improvements.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama called for the United States to double its exports over the next five years. The IFAI applauds this truly ambitious plan (called the National Export Initiative). It is exactly the type of vision we need to restore American manufacturing. Exports mean jobs.

Right now, only one in 100 small- and medium-sized U.S. manufacturers engages in exporting. Among those that do, 58 percent sell only to one foreign nation, usually Mexico or Canada. Imagine how rapidly U.S. exports would grow if merely five percent—rather than one percent—of typical U.S. manufacturers found customers beyond North American borders.

Challenge Defined

The key challenge for smaller companies is to find foreign customers and tap into distribution channels that will ensure a reliable supply chain. That’s where manufacturing trade associations such as the IFAI, with assistance from the public sector through programs like the National Export Initiative, can kindle export expansion.

The Department of Commerce recently awarded IFAI a Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP) grant. With the help of the MDCP funds, IFAI is creating the first all-inclusive specialty fabrics trade show in the Asia Pacific region. IFAI Expo Asia 2011 is being held in March in Singapore and includes a determined band of U.S. manufacturers seeking new connections. Singapore is an appropriate location. Recently, it was ranked number-one in the world in innovation, according to a study done by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Boston Consulting Group.

The Department of Commerce supports the industry, and that support is greatly appreciated. We have proven to be a worthy global competitor. We see opportunity and we act upon it. It’s already working. Exports of specialty fabrics in the last 12 months to ASEAN countries have increased 65 percent and overall 28 percent in the global market. But much remains to be done.

Ultimately, it’s up to private enterprise to fill order books that lead to brisk exports and strong demand in our own country. We’re not asking for handouts or protection. We’re asking for vision and investment. The specialty fabrics industry is an American manufacturing success story. Let’s keep it going.

Author Stephen M. Warner is the Industrial Fabrics Association International’s (IFAI) president and chief executive officer. A business trade association, IFAI promotes the specialty fabric industry’s products and innovations. Comprised of more than 1,900 members in 54 countries, IFAI invests its membership dollars and its publication and event revenues into benefits for its global membership. The organization will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2012. For more information, visit www.ifai.com.


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