the innovation issue – TEEJAY’S FABRIC IS NOT UNIQUE, BUT ITS KNITTING IS SPECIAL

TEEJAY LANKA PLC

PUBUDU DE SILVA
TEEJAY LANKA PLC
FOUNDING: 2001
REVENUE: RS22 BILLION
EMPLOYEES: 2,150

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TEEJAY’S FABRIC IS NOT UNIQUE, BUT ITS KNITTING IS SPECIAL

Teejay Lanka, a listed Rs22 billion revenue weft-knit fabric maker, is not the only company manufacturing self-cleaning and water resistant fabrics, but its application of technology and production processes are innovative.

“The clothing industry is changing rapidly. Product innovation is important to move up the value chain and sustain a competitive advantage. However, we can’t always be at the forefront of product innovation, but we can innovate around processes to find an edge,” says Pubudu De Silva, Chief Operations Officer at Teejay, a fabric supplier to Sri Lanka’s export clothing manufacturers. “For us, innovation of how we do, rather than what we make, is the imperative,” he says. With all the hype about smart technology’s inroads into the clothing industry, Teejay experimented with embedding electronics into fabrics, but it failed. “The technology was too advanced and it is a very niche market for the local R&D and manufacturing ecosystem,” De Silva says.

The company lowered its aspirations a notch and found opportunity within easier reach around its core-strength in weft knitted fabrics from cotton and synthetic fibres, or a mixture of the two. If it can’t improve the functionality of innovative fabrics, it can try to make them a lot cheaper. Teejay recently filed two patents: an anti-microbial and odor-controllable fabric that kills germs, and another for a self-cleaning fabric that repels water, both developed in collaboration with the University of Peradeniya. “There are fabrics with similar functionalities out there, but we’ve worked out how to produce these at half the cost by tweaking the nanotechnology chemical application,” De Silva says. “Demand for these fabrics is growing so we’ve given ourselves a significant cost advantage,” he says.

Teejay’s mills in Seethawaka and India produce around 70-75 MT of fabric a day supplying to Sri Lankan clothing makers like Brandix, Hela Clothing, and MAS, and plans to triple revenue to $300 million by 2020.

Its fabric innovations and designs are presented directly to its customers’ buyers. “R&D is expensive so we have to make sure we’re putting in money to solve the right problem,” De Silva says. The company recently launched the world’s first carbon neutral fabric, and uses data analytics to pre-empt seasonal sales and fashion trends.

“We are investing in synthetic fabrics at an opportune time,” De Silva says. Non-natural synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and rayon with spandex have been challenged around their lower biodegradable aspects. Microscopic plastic beads could escape with the laundry wash to pollute rivers and oceans and possibly even into the fish we eat.

However, the versatility of synthetic fabrics (they are stretchable, waterproof, and long lasting) is hard to ignore. WGSN, a global firm that forecasts fashion trends, claims technology improvements and blending with natural fibres make synthetic fabrics less harmful to the environment. “Demand for synthetic fabrics are growing at a faster rate than for natural textiles,” De Silva says.

The company has been investing over $4.5 million to install synthetic capacity, and plans to further enhance this significantly over the next few years. “By 2020, synthetics will contribute about 20% to group revenue and will enhance the bottom line percentages, since synthetic margins are at higher levels, given their sophistication and degree of difficulty,” he says.

The company constantly tweaks processes so that it can find an edge delivering faster turnaround times and lower costs compared to its competitors who often use the same machinery. Teejay is secretive about these process improvements, which are patented to prevent competitors copying them. Processes and functionalities that earlier took several days are now completed in a few hours or a few minutes