Walking through clouds of dust and tiptoeing around dirty puddles in a sweltering fabric-dyeing house in China led to an epiphany for a British innovator, who is now on a mission to revolutionise the way clothes are manufactured.
The “shocking” sight that confronted Dr Alan Hudd when he stepped into the factory, on the outskirts of Ningbo, a city south of Shanghai, became ingrained so deeply in his mind that he felt compelled to act upon his return to the UK.
The former rocket scientist used lessons learnt at the Ministry of Defence to develop a device that offers an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional soaking, drying, washing and redrying method of dyeing.
Along with his employees at Alchemie Technology, a Cambridge-based start-up he founded in 2014, he created a device that blasts dye on to cloth, reducing the need for huge quantities of coloured water.
Using the machine allows dyeing manufacturers to reduce energy consumption by 85 per cent and results in much less water pollution, Dr Hudd said.
Looking back on his jolting experience in the Asian dyeing house in 2018, he said “within a flash” it struck him he was dealing with “a dinosaur industry” in urgent need of updating.
The scientist described seeing a worker trudging towards him “in a fog of pollution with no shirt on at all, with a scar across his chest”.
“It was really staggering,” he told The National. “It was truly shocking the amount of pollution that was being created, the amount of energy that was being created.”
“I had this everlasting image of getting off an aircraft from London into Shanghai, driving a couple of hours to this dye house.
“It was lunch time, it was very hot and very humid. We went into the dye house and it was dirty, full of dust, with huge puddles of polluted dyed water on the factory floor and you just saw the scale of the problem steeping tonnes and tonnes of fabric in water heated up to 130°C for four hours to dye clothes.
“If the world really knew about this, they’d be horrified and the problem is this is not well known, this pollution.”
The Endeavour machine, which Dr Hudd says will deliver “waterless smart design”, uses non-contact jetting to spurt 270 million drops per second on to polyester and cotton. The process eliminates the huge amounts of dyed water left over at the end of the colouring process which is sometimes dumped into rivers.
The device, which costs £1.5 million ($1.8m), has been bought by six firms around the world, including factories in major textile producers Taiwan and Turkey.
Novara, another of the start-up's creations, sells for £500,000 and applies finishing treatments such as water repellent and anti-odour technology to clothes.
In addition to reducing the carbon footprint of the global textile industry, Dr Hudd hopes his invention will reduce the average production time of an item of clothing from nine months to one.
H&M is an investor in Alchemie Technology and global sports brands have also shown interest in adopting the innovative methods, Dr Hudd said. But he stressed that the relationship between the average brand and the manufacturer is “brutal”.
Most big-name brands push manufacturers to provide services at the lowest rate possible. This makes firms reluctant to change the methods used to make clothes in case they incur more expense.
While brands have the power to endorse technology or to influence manufacturers, the final say on methods does not lie with them.
Finding manufacturers that are willing to invest in non-traditional dyeing methods to reduce their carbon footprint is a vital step for retailers when trying to promote their brands to eco-conscious consumers.
Investing in the Endeavour and Novara machines could cut a manufacturer’s labour costs by half, the developers say. While this may be seen as a positive by the firms, many uneducated workers who lack other skills rely on the outdated methods to earn a living.
During his doctoral studies at the University of Manchester, Dr Hudd was part of a team that invented a synthetic oil used in vehicles.
NLAW shoulder fired missile inventor
In the 1980s, he worked at the Ministry of Defence, where he designed and developed anti-tank rockets that Britain recently sent to Ukraine.
Dr Hudd credits his tenure at the ministry for the experience that gave him the tools to develop the machines he hopes will change the way the fashion industry operates.
“To every problem, there’s a solution and you just can’t be baulked by these problems,” he said. “It was a great training ground to create this problem-solving, solution-driven thinking.”
Louise Pollock, a fashion and textiles lecturer at North Kent College, said if Alchemie Technologie’s machines are adopted by warehouses used by big-name brands, it could spark a change affecting the whole industry.
The former designer, who has 40 years’ experience in the industry, has visited dyeing houses across the globe. She said vast quantities of waste dyed water are churned out in places such as India and often end up in rivers.
“It’s about not having that amount of waste any more,” she said of Alchemie’s machines.
“I think it’s going to make a massive difference,” she told The National. “It’s going to make a difference to the whole perception of fashion, which is not having a good time at the moment.
“I think that’s what [the fashion industry] needs to do. It needs to improve its image and build confidence back into the consumer.
“My students are aged 16 to 18, and some are in their 20s. They are all conscious of the environment and they do shop with that in mind.”
A spokesman for H&M said the machines would help to solve a ”long-standing sustainability issue in the supply chain for textile products”.
”We invested in them as the commercial implementation of their innovative technology not only aligns perfectly with our wider sustainability goals, but also has the potential to benefit the entire textile industry,” he said.
Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, said Alchemie Technology’s machines were part of a growing trend in the industry to move towards greener methods of production.
“There is a real move for the textile industry to reduce its water usage, so technological advancements such as the Alchemie process are gaining lots of attention in the sector,” he said.
“Other solutions are exploring foam dyeing, which significantly reduces the amount of water used in the dyeing process, as well as research into ways to recover dyestuff from post-consumer textiles and reducing water usage in domestic washing.
“The Textiles 2030 initiative, a voluntary agreement which the majority of the UK high street and fashion retailers are now signed up to, has named reducing the aggregate water footprint of new products sold by 30 per cent as one of its key targets. As a result, we expect to see interest and adoption of these kinds of technologies to continue to increase over the next few years.”