What does the Portuguese textile sector currently represent for the economy?
The textile sector is of crucial importance; it represents 10% of total industrial exports from Portugal and more than 15% of employment in the manufacturing industry. The most important thing, however, is that the textile sector is in a counter cycle in relation to other first-world countries. From 2008-2009, GDP shrank by about 20%. However, since 2009 we have increased exports by 50% and increased employee efficiency also by 50%. These figures are extremely important because we are not operating in a protected market. We grew significantly outside of the EU in the first 10 years after the crisis. We went to Russia, South America, Asia, and the GCC, etc. as a result of reaction to the consumption fall in Europe in 2009. We have a gap of about EUR200 million between production and turnover. Basically, we produce all the products we sell, and it is necessary to have the most efficient processes and generate more value per article square meter. This is now the situation of the sector in Portugal.
How has the sector worked to set itself apart from its competitors around the world?
First of all, Portugal has a flourishing textile and fashion culture and a strong and consolidated industrial experience, demonstrated by the way we preserved the T&C industry in the last two decades. Secondly, we have a strong scientific and technological system within the T&C industry. Well-known textile institutions and companies from around Europe now send people to study here. Finally, we have completely changed the way we do business with textiles, related to management systems and practices. Many Portuguese companies offer lead-time of two weeks currently, which is amazing for any sector. We also invested in product development and innovation as a current component. In 2005 Portugal basically used to sell “minutes” of industrial transformation (machine time, energy, and labor), nowadays almost all the companies develop the products they sell. Now, we offer fashion solutions, and customers understand that we can play a part in developing their collections. This is a completely new approach. We have also focused a great deal on technical development and created new applications for the automotive, defense, health sectors, among others. This movement was very important to run way from emergent economies direct competition, where labor costs are low or extremely low. Ultimately, the industry grew strongly because we evolved from being a commodity producer to a solutions and high-end services provider.
Which areas of the sector have potential in the coming years?
There are certain other subsectors that are extremely important for us. Automotive, sport, and protective equipment applications are on top, a clear nexus between technology and design. Sports clothing or protective equipment is also fashionable clothing, and materials must improve performance. The link between technical materials and fashion is vital. We are extremely involved in the development of technical fabrics acting as advanced devices and sensors.
How do you work to ensure the best possible synergies between the stakeholders in the textile industry?
CITEVE is an initiative of 650 companies; 70% of the center is owned by private firms and the remainder by the government. The idea is to spur competitiveness among Portuguese companies. We stand to find the right way to support companies. We created quality control systems to understand the specific issues companies were facing and to provide new ideas to rectify the situation. At the same time, we created teams for technical assistance and helped companies to optimize their production. By the end of the 1990s, Portugal was one of the very best in the world, concerning strictly manufacturing as corollary of strong need of change in the industry, the bet in the CITEVE's creation and the Ministry of Industry program to support companies to invest in cutting-edge machinery. However, we were only the best in terms of production, and we had no capacity in terms of design or technological development. CITEVE decided to extend the range of activities supporting companies as they adopted new IT solutions, changed their production, and improved the way they formed and maintained relationships with customers. More recently, following the evolution, CITEVE is strongly involved in the technological development of advanced solutions.
Which subsectors of Portugal's textile industry are likely to attract the most foreign investment and development in the near future?
At the moment, most textile companies in the country are owned and operated by the Portuguese. Portugal has a strong textile community, and we have many people capable of driving new companies and partnerships. If we have the right financing for companies, then we are well positioned. Our past experience with international companies was not successful, because they came mainly to exploit differences in labor costs and would leave at the first sign of difficulty. Had the textile sector belonged to foreign banks or investment partnerships during the 2008-2009 crisis, the industry would have definitely closed down. Fortunately, the industry is in the hands of Portuguese families, and they have a different mindset about the companies. Portuguese industrialists are more willing to invest in the sector when times get tough. Family ownership was the secret to Portugal's success during the difficult years. Recently several foreign companies came to Portugal to invest in the sector, now motivated by the excellency our country offers.
Can you tell us more about your initiatives as CEO of the CeNTI - Centre of Nanotechnology and Smart Materials?
Though university programs focused on textile engineering were in decline, the technological sector for textiles and clothing is currently extremely strong. CeNTI collaborates with the best consortia in Europe and have some areas of exclusivity. No one in Europe is able to produce three component fibers except CeNTI, a complex technology in terms of materials processing and we lead Europe using this technology. Additionally, we have been working hard to integrate electronics into textile products, I mean, developed solutions where textile materials, structures and products are itself electronic devices: sensors, actuators, etc. Since 2003 we are convinced that nanotechnology will be the base of advanced textiles.
What are your top priorities over the coming years to support the continued growth of the textile industry?
The textile sector in Portugal must be at the cutting edge of the digitalization of manufacturing processes. The sector does not have any chance to be worse than Chinese or German manufacturers. If it will be possible to develop completely digitized plants, using robots to make textile goods, then we must be there. We must make sure that Portugal will remain competitive to produce textiles, even in Portugal. People are working to develop this area, and we are currently investing strongly to create a factory that endows companies with the knowledge needed to understand the future of the textile industry. We are developing platforms that enable us to develop applications for this. It is a great opportunity for us, because we have an excellent knowledge base regarding textiles. Furthermore, we have enough IT and internal logistics firms to facilitate a rapid development and keep us on the cutting edge. We need to create and maintain competencies that ensure our textile sector can remain at the forefront. Another priority is to emphasize sustainability and the “circular economy.” In fact the starting point is yet very well positioned when compared with the rest of the textile world. As Europe has a strong legal framework related to environment, nowadays in Portugal, it is easy for companies to be certified according to sustainability standards.