AFFOA: Working Toward a Manufacturing-based Revolution

By SPESA

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a non-profit Institute headquartered near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one of the latest members of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) Institutes. AFFOA’s mission is to transform the manufacturing industry from traditional fibers, yarns, and fabrics to highly sophisticated devices and systems. We recently spoke with the AFFOA team about the changing workforce of the U.S. sewn products industry and the challenges related to training the next generation of workers. Read the discussion below.

SPESA: How have you seen the workforce of the sewn products industry change and evolve over the last 10-20 years?


AFFOA: Despite large technological innovations and upskilling of workers in other industries, the workforce of the sewn products, apparel, and textile industry has in many respects remained the same over the past 10-20 years. One possible reason for this is due to the uniqueness of working with fabric (which often requires a human touch to manipulate), therefore it has taken longer for technology to evolve to meet the complex demands of the industry.


As a result, the workforce to support the industry is really just starting to shift, now that technology has evolved to more effectively support it. The other challenge is the cost/benefit of transforming the industry apparel/sewn products is a low margin industry, which to transform, requires an up-front investment in equipment, etc. Some companies have been able to purchase equipment which allows them to train their employees, however, if a company cannot afford to purchase equipment, that may pose a challenge to the industry’s desire to move to the next level of innovation. Examples of this are increased automation of the textile supply chain through the use of Sewbots and other technologies that change how human capital is utilized in the workplace and the skills required to operate the equipment.

In addition, a few other initiatives in the past four years have begun to transform the textile/sewn products industry and therefore will continue to transform the sewn workforce in the United States, including:

  1. The establishment of the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (AFFOA is one of these), created under the Obama Administration to revitalize the domestic textile industry through technological innovation and education of a workforce to support it; AFFOA’s membership leverages the intersection of universities with deep research and development capabilities, startups with unique new ideas on how to introduce technology into product, manufacturers who can build prototypes and mass produce; and large brand companies that translate ideas into commercializable product at scale, all of which has national benefit.

  2. Increased Federal investments (NSF, DOD, NIST, DOL) in expanding the talent pool for this industry (and manufacturing in general), in addition to addressing the gaps that industry is experiencing with a lack of skilled workers as Baby Boomers retire. There has also been an increased emphasis on the Skilled Technical Workforce which is roughly defined as having less than a Bachelor’s Degree, often less than an Associate’s Degree, but one that has the knowledge and technical skills to support the industry. We are also seeing increased emphasis on the role of a “work and learn model” for training and retraining workers, which has historically been referred to as apprenticeships.


What are the greatest challenges in recruiting and training the next generation of the industry?


AFFOA: There are two major groups that AFFOA is beginning to think about as it relates to workforce development in the industry:

  1. Current Workforce - individuals with robust knowledge and skills but who may require additional training/competencies to handle new technology or move into automated jobs.

  2. Future Workforce - individuals with little to no experience who need to be recruited/trained for the industry.

At present, one of the largest challenges is rekindling a passion, excitement, and awareness of the textile industry. It is not presently perceived or known by young (or many) people as a “sexy” profession that can help transform the world and do good: we need to change that perception.


Wouldn’t it be great if going into advanced textiles, fibers, sewing, apparel was considered the way to have a positive impact on society (similarly to becoming a doctor or working at Google)? We must increase awareness of all the mind-blowing things that fibers, fabrics, and sewn goods can do for humans across a variety of industries. We also need to transform the mindset of parents, grandparents, and other adults who talk to children about career options, to convince and inspire them that a career in advanced manufacturing is a good career path to pursue.


Another challenge is increasing access to education and training for people to enter STEM professions. STEM fields need to be more accessible for individuals who don’t have a history of higher education, or for individuals who have been in the field but are intimidated by the emerging technology. There is a large number of talented people who could be entering the field now and in the future, but who have not previously had the access or the resources to do so. We also need to make sure education is aligned with what industry is looking for both now and in the future; specifically with the programs offered by Career and Technical Education programs and Community Colleges. These systems must be aligned in order to ensure a relevant workforce exists.


Can you tell us a little bit about AFFOA’s high school curriculum. Why was it created and what are some of the key things that AFFOA has learned from it thus far?


AFFOA: AFFOA partnered with Greater Lawrence Technical School (GLTS) and MIT Edgerton to develop an Advanced Functional Fabrics Curriculum that will be integrated into their STEAM program at GLTS. GLTS is a technical and vocational school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that focuses on providing career and technical education skills and knowledge to students to prepare them for entry into jobs after high school. AFFOA felt that partnering with a secondary school was critical since they are a key part of the future workforce. GLTS in particular was chosen given its newly developed STEAM Innovation program, strong curriculum in advanced manufacturing, and existing relationship with MIT Edgerton. The school also sees the value of providing students with an interdisciplinary curriculum that can be applied to a variety of different fields, giving students a stronger competitive edge in the workforce.


The goal of the program is to inspire and prepare a group of cross-disciplinary students for the future workforce who have a broad base of skills and knowledge in advanced manufacturing. Between 2018-2019, six curricula units were developed in addition to 80+ lesson plans which include the following elements:

  1. How advanced functional fabrics (AFF) are made (e.g. materials, processes, equipment)

  2. Introduction to product and market applications, and design of fibers, textiles, and products

  3. Project-based coursework that enables students to design and prototype new products and market applications that improve lives and/or positively impact society

  4. Product development capabilities from ideation, prototyping, and communication of ideas to physical production and testing of the products

The program development in 2020 will include designing an allocated AFF learning space on the GLTS campus. This space will include equipment necessary to learn AFF curriculum and allow students to quickly go from idea to prototype. Additional curricula units are currently being developed to cover knitting fundamentals on a Shima Seiki knitting machine.


One of the most positive aspects of this program is the connection to industry through AFFOA’s membership. Through these relationships we have been able to make connections with local manufacturers and industry to help contextualize student learnings with real life problems and situations. This allows students to envision themselves in the workforce, apply what they are learning to real problems that organizations face, and show how they can make a difference.


Through this experience, we have learned that partnerships like this are incredibly important to inspiring, supporting, and preparing students for this work. This could not have been developed without significant effort and dedication from the staff at GLTS and MIT Edgerton to provide support to students and to design curriculum. It’s also important to be able to compensate faculty for the work they do and ensure there is a positive return on investment for all parties investing in a project like this.


Where are the current gaps in training within the industry?


AFFOA: We are continuously learning, however, from our conversations with industry partners thus far, we are hearing that one of the largest gaps is being able to find individuals with the technical training, skills, and knowledge to hire for the technician level jobs they need. In addition, there is no way to train someone for every possible job/change in industry so the key is training individuals with a core set of skills (technical, technological, electrical, manufacturing, critical thinking, problem solving, communication) that allow them to pivot and shapeshift as technology evolves and industry continuously changes over time.


Where does the industry as a whole need to improve in its approach to the next generation of the workforce?


AFFOA: Of course we are always learning about this, but we have some initial ideas. We need to start with awareness raising and inspiration of both current and future generations helping them imagine and understand what is possible within the textile and sewn product industry. We must create bridges between industry, brands, and academia to improve addressment of gaps in the workforce. Finally, we need to expand and reframe historical and traditional notions of who comprises the textile workforce to be far more inclusive and responsive to the current times and to actually reflect the general population. This in and of itself could increasingly inspire and build confidence in future generations, and begin to transform current industry perceptions.


What are the next steps in AFFOA’s efforts toward workforce development and how can Behind the Seams readers get involved?


AFFOA: AFFOA is constantly evolving, and is currently in the process of redefining our education and workforce development strategy, part of which involves kicking off a national industry needs assessment for the textile/sewn goods/advanced functional fiber industry that will be rolled out over the next few months.


The goal of this needs assessment is to gather national labor market data; understand industry and education needs and gaps; and use all of this to define where AFFOA should focus its efforts to have the greatest impact on a national scale for education and workforce development. We will be sending out surveys to stakeholders, asking for volunteers to participate in interviews, and requesting participation in discussion groups *virtually.*


We view everyone as stakeholders in the needs assessment process; educational partners, workforce entities, industry, economic development partners, and many of you!


If you have an interest in participating in this initiative or interested in collaborating with us on future EWD programs please contact: Becky Lewis, Director of Education and Workforce Development at becky@affoa.org. We would love to hear from you!

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