AFC Chairman Simon Chen looks back at the biggest impacts to the textiles industry in Asia from the pandemic, and lays out some practical ways to make the manufacturing process ‘greener’
If you remember back to the start of the pandemic, I am sure you will all remember discussions of where to get PPE to tackle the crisis. At the centre of these conversations were countries like China and India, but coming in as the third largest man-made fibre manufacturer is Taiwan. Talking to Cleanroom Technology about his career and industry, Chairman for the Asiatic Fiber Corporation Simon Chen, discusses his first hand account of the efforts that his company put into addressing the pandemic, but is also keen to talk about the other global crisis that needs to be tackled in his sector, climate change.
Born and educated in Taiwan, Chen has put 50 years in the textiles industry. “I foresaw that textiles will forever be an inseparable item from human’s daily life, thus dedicated myself to the industry,” he explains. Many of these years have been for AFC, a Taiwan-based textile company founded in 1973. The company’s offerings have gone from providing only basic products to now including professional consultation and product co-developing, striving to be not just a “supplier”, but instead becoming our customer’s trusted partners.
“I would say I was very lucky to start my technical textile business in Taiwan with strong electronic and medical industries,” Chen reflects. The country has a huge and ever-increasing presence of hi-tech manufacturing leaders, such as TSMC. This changing landscape is important to track and Chen says, “I have also learnt that it is important to face the changes that will happen in the future head on.”
During the outbreak, all countries and customers were faced with a lack of PPE resources for personal protection
Chen is extremely future-focused as the majority of responsibilities include planning the long-term strategies to meet customer demands and defining the new business model to attract more business. But informing these decision is his involvement with the day to day. “I am deeply involved in customer problem solving, research and development of intelligent and smart textiles, and finding new applications,” he says.
It is this customer involvement that keeps Chen appraised of how the sector is working and where it is moving. Chen lists some of the more basic cleanroom clothing used today, such as coveralls, caps, face masks, frocks/lab coats, gowns, but adds that modern day manufacturing can’t just rely on basic protection anymore. “Besides stabilising static-sensitive device, assembling line, and keeping workplace protection, we must consider cleanroom personnel’s comfortability and take COVID-19 into consideration,” he says. “Is there any need for antibacterial performance in cleanroom clothing or maybe using environmental friendly manufacturing process or material to contribute toward a more sustainable future as part of ESG movement.”
With 32 patents and shipping to 62 different countries, Chen is very much helping keep his company moving forward. He says that one of the most important aspect of marketing to the cleanroom sectors would be a focus on particle control. “We know this industry is very sensitive to particles damaging their products, thus using the right material and choosing the right supplier is the key to resolving any problem that could occur.”
In a primarily single-use industry, Chen is a huge advocate for the circular economy and other such green policies. “Sustainability can’t be achieved by depending on one part of the chain,” he says. “I believe sustainability is part of collective process from using environmental friendly material, to a sustainable manufacturing process and also reducing carbon emission, while also maintaining the comfortableness of cleanroom clothing, only by doing this we can create a truly sustainable facilities.”
Without wanting to give too much away, Chen explains that he is really looking forward to project that aim to improve these aspects. “It could be by using recycled material or a waterless dyeing process,” he says, adding that he hopes that these would become a mainstream in the future.
The Chairman explains that unsurprising multiple sectors are showing demand for recycled/recyclable materials. “This is especially due to the fact that more and more companies are shifting their operation toward a more sustainable management, where they actively participate in ESG movement,” Chen says.
But besides recycle material, Chen also sees more innovation in manufacturing process of functional textiles. “Take waterless dyeing process as an example,” he explains. “This process is one of the most desired practices that currently exist, because it helps in greatly reducing the reliance of functional textiles on water resources during dyeing.”
Chen explains that he finds the waterless dyeing process so promising because, “we always talk about being environmentally friendly by using recycled material, but we never tackle sustainability from manufacturing process.” He explains that this process eventually leads to less water resources being wasted, making functional textiles progressively sustainable.
Chen talks about AFC as not just a provider of a product, but as a partner to its customers. “Our offerings has evolved from providing only basic product to include professional consultation and product co-developing,” he says. “We strive to be not just a “supplier”, but instead becoming our customer’s trusted partners.”
With his main competitors being found in China and South Korea, this “partner” attitude is what Chen thinks is defining AFC from these others. He explains that a big part of being in the textiles sector is a lot of building long-term relationships, he says that some of AFC’s clients have been with them for 20 years. “However, we also strive to find new customers, products and applications, expanding our service from cleanroom to cross industry offerings for military, aerospace and medical,” says Chen.
I believe sustainability is part of collective process from using environmental friendly material, to a sustainable manufacturing process
Chen explains that with this array of industries comes a lots of functionalities with extremely differing needs. “Each industry faces very different hazards, and need different solutions” he says. But even within the same industry, varying solutions are needed, he explains. The hi-tech manufacturing industry, for example, can use electrostatic discharge (ESD) and/or electromagnetic interference (EMI) EMI materials. “ESD fabric are weaved with conductive yarn, granting excellent anti-static performance and preventing static buildup due to friction, which also contributes to reducing chances of dust adsorption. This eventually helps in achieving both particle control and ESD prevention, protecting any customer’s manufacturing line from product flaw caused by particle or static electricity. Alternatively, EMI materials work by shielding electromagnetic from direct contact with subject by reflecting the electromagnetic waves away. Plenty of research has pointed to the fact that EMI can causes harm to both human and animals, especially with the growing usage of smartphone and being surrounded by high-voltage power lines as the reason behind the growing of EMI energy. EMI could also interfere with lots of important devices such as interrupting the operation of active medical devices, or EMI could also degrade the performance of any equipment, introducing errors or operational faults, and even causing complete failure!”
The need for all of these innovative pushes have been emphasised by the pandemic. Chen looks back at the pandemonium his clients went through as a result of lockdowns and supply chains issues. “These lead to shut downs or factory closure,” Chen recalls. Like many providers in the textiles industry at this time, AFC was overwhelmed with demand he explains. “During the outbreak, all countries and customers were faced with a lack of PPE resources for personal protection. Hence, we used our existing cleanroom fabric and antibacterial fabric to swiftly develop reusable personal protection equipment with antibacterial performance, ranging from reusable mask, reusable protective coverall, etc., as a mean of basic protection for customer’s employee and all their families.”
It is this revolution for anti-microbial cleanroom clothing that was the most obvious impact on the textiles industry as a result of COVID-19. This increased awareness from an increasing number of companies was however, a doubled-edged sword. The lead times skyrocket and became highly volatile.