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How about a treasure hunt? What we are looking for is the technological and engineering core of the leather industry. Where can we find it? It used to be in the hands of tanners and their colleagues. Schultz working in New York with Booths on chromium, Turney Wood scurrying around with dog faeces in his tannery in Nottingham, England looking for pancreatic enzymes.
Then for many decades we had highly prestigious research organisations around the world leading the process of industry advancement. Changed circumstances means that these have not survived as a meaningful body into the 21st century and were anyway losing out to a dynamic group of chemical companies, mostly in Europe, which drove technology forward. Yet the costs of globalisation and compliance have taken their toll even with this sector, which has seen a series of waves of consolidation.
Consequently, as we look into the future of Industry 4.0, the leather industry lacks any form of common approach, or even the catalyst to persuade tanners around the world to seriously and systematically examine the opportunities (and threats) it offers. All the more important since it is clear our competitors and customers are all moving ahead in their thinking.
According to the new ICT website, leathercouncil.org, the leather industry in total produces about 23-24 billion sq ft of leather a year, and the total value of this is estimated to be approaching US$50 billion. This makes it one of the biggest traded agricultural commodities. They then do another calculation adding trade in raw, wet-blue, crust and leather footwear which takes the figure above US$80 billion. Often when presenting figures about world trade, by which many emerging countries like to measure their growth, the figure is out at over US$100 billion.
Whatever the actual numbers they are big. We are an important industry. Important to the meat and dairy industry, important to many economies in the provision of taxation and employment, important to society for training and maintaining a wide variety of skills, and important for the provision of current and future employment to millions of people around the world.
Given that, should our industry not be finding ways to introduce some form of new technological thinktank to the scene? One capable of looking hard at new ideas and technologies, or whole new business environments such as Industry 4.0 and providing forward guidance. Perhaps able to carry out research itself, or to commission it.
As we look out at the technical landscape today, our industry wide research appears very haphazard or pulled along by a cocktail of ideas on a narrow definition of “sustainability” and short-term commercial gain. Given our significance in scale, ubiquity in history, and expectation for the future would this not be something to aim for?
Speaking at a Leather Naturally panel meeting at the Portland Materials Show last autumn, John Graebin of Deckers asked us to consider how leather would be viewed if it were discovered today for the first time. A renewable, sustainable, durable, versatile yet beautiful material; in fact, as the very best example of what a modern material in its class should be. Surely leather needs a research and development mission to match these lofty ideals.
Dr Mike Redwood
January 30, 2019.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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