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Tattered Textile Industry Turns to Top US Labs

LASER scissors and electronic embedded fingerprints are some of the first fruits of an unusual research partnership aimed at stopping the United States textile industry from slowly unraveling.

To battle low-cost foreign competition, a joint government- industry partnership was formed two years ago, known as AMTEX, to draw on the resources of the US Department of Energy's top national laboratories.

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Major US employer

The industry, with 26,000 textile, fiber, and apparel companies, is one of the country's largest employers, providing 2 million jobs to farmers, wool growers, and mill workers -- more than those employed in the US auto, paper, or petroleum refining industries. But during the last 15 years, more than 600,000 jobs have been lost, while imports have steadily increased.

Today, almost 70 percent of the clothing Americans wear is foreign-made or made domestically from foreign textiles; 20 years ago, only 23 percent came from abroad.

To turn the tide on this trend, AMTEX is borrowing a page out of Japan Inc.'s industrial development textbook, working together to beat overseas competition.

Among the ideas developed by AMTEX to date:

* Laser scissors. By using faster textile-cutting technologies manufacturers can afford to cut one garment at a time, rather than thick stacks of fabric. Cuts are more exact, and inventories of each size can be controlled more carefully.

* Computer-aided fabric evaluation provides an inspection system that would weed out defects in fabrics ''on-loom'' and ensure more consistent quality. Currently, most fabric is inspected by people who are not able to stop the production process quickly if they find a defect.

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* Electronic embedded fingerprints. Rice-size electronic devices are being developed that could be embedded in clothing. Detectable through boxes and garment bags, the electronic tags can store more information about the item than can traditional bar-coded tags to help control inventory and combat counterfeiting.

* Demand-activated manufacturing architecture. New computer software and systems would link buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. These ''electronic yellow pages'' would cut down search times for, say, a company that can produce a specific type of blouse, from days into minutes.

Long-term R&D

In 1993, the US government formed the $50 million a year research partnership to find technologies to help the flagging textile industry. A similar joint effort, known as US CAR, was formed to promote cooperation and research in the auto industry. Though the research AMTEX is conducting accounts for only about 5 percent of the industry's total research and development budget, it's considered crucial because it is concentrated on long-term projects that affect the entire industry, says AMTEX executive director Richard Quisenberry.

AMTEX's goal is to ''stabilize the loss of jobs,'' Mr. Quisenberry says, and to recover some of the domestic market share.

Much of AMTEX's research is aimed at cutting down on the ''production pipeline'' time for garments -- now about 66 weeks before an item reaches the retailer. Of those weeks, 55 are spent on inventory and distribution and 11 are spent producing, Quisenberry says.

Cutting ''pipeline'' time in half could save $12 billion a year, says Doug Lemon, AMTEX laboratory program manager. It also enables the industry to respond faster to buyers, allowing them to carry less inventory and have fewer markdowns and items not sold.

If this research pays off in the years to come -- some of the ideas will take six to seven years to implement -- new jobs would be created, many of them high-skill, Quisenberry says.

One branch of AMTEX, the Textile/Clothing Technology Corporation in Cary, N.C., is developing training for these new jobs; most US jobs lost over the last 10 years have been low-skill jobs concentrated in the apparel sector.

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