Incorrectly dyed fabric can cost a textile dyeing plant between $1.5 million to $5 million annually. Officials at HueMetrix, Inc., say that’s usually the difference between a profitable operation and a shuttered one. Spun out of the College of Textiles last year, the company has developed a monitoring system its founders hope will eliminate financial red ink at North Carolina textile plants by ensuring red dye and other colors come out looking as they should on fabric.
Dyeing has traditionally been more art than science for textile firms, with supervisors relying on knowledge gained through years on the job to get the best color matches on fabric in a dye bath. Still, about 5 to 15 percent of a typical plant’s production has to be re-dyed or thrown out because colors didn’t come out right the first time, says Dr. Brent Smith, Cone Mills Professor of Textile Chemistry. “There are so many things that you can’t control, from the water quality to the phase of the moon, so shades sometimes vary from one dye lot to the next,” he says.
Smith and Drs. Keith Beck and Warren Jasper have collectively put about 40 years of research into building what they call “the right first time system,” upon which HueMetrix is based. The system pulls a drop out of the dye bath every minute during the 45- to 50-minute dyeing process and injects it into a monitor, where a spectrophotometer is used to obtain real-time measurements of each dye in the bath. HueMetrix’s automated control system then makes any necessary adjustments to the water temperature, dye levels, or other variables to ensure the fabric is dyed properly. “Dyeing isn’t simple. You have to work to make it work,” says Jasper, associate professor of textile engineering.
The research might have just remained in the lab if not for a team of graduate students in the College of Management’s HiTEC program. Searching for a technology to commercialize two years ago, the students seized upon the monitoring system idea and did enough market research to convince NC State officials it could form the basis of a viable spin-off. “This is the Holy Grail for the textile industry,” says Kelly Wright, a member of the HiTEC team who joined HueMetrix as director of business development after earning her MBA. “There is a huge need in the industry to decrease errors and make things right the first time.”
As company officials continue working to make the system small enough and strong enough to fit into the harsh environment of a dye plant, they’re sorting through numerous eager textile firms to pick test market partners, says Beck, head of the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science. “This is a quality control tool that should offer North Carolina companies a competitive advantage in addition to saving on the bottom line,” he says.