Norway is well-known for its oil, but the second-most important field in the Norwegian economy is fishing. Angles in the water, ships with trawls in tow, and so on. A traditional industry? Actually no. The fishing industry is the client of ultramodern smart textiles developed and produced in Estonia.
The textile producer Protex is about to create a uniform equipped with speech recognition, GPS positioning, fall-down identification, activity monitor, and many other features. The development of those is based on actual need and implementation and not created just to demonstrate what’s possible.
From hard times to innovative solutions
‘In 2014, our company was going through some hard times,’ says Helena Almqvist, Managing Director of Protex Balti AS. ‘We had many smaller clients and we sold goods with a low operating margin. We knew we had to change. We decided to move up the value chain.’
Although it did not seem like an easy road, Almqvist says that the transformation of Protex proves that innovation can happen in fields that seem very traditional, like the textile industry.
The first Ragnarok brand weatherproof clothing was made for the big Norwegian fishing corporations Leroy and Marine Harvest. The product was developed in cooperation with the Norwegian research agency Sintef. The mother company of Protex is based in Norway, but development and production take place at their Estonian head office and factory in Tallinn. Customers started to ask if Protex would be able to create something more high-tech.
At the same time, the Estonian Information and Communication Technology Cluster (ICT) called upon the ICT companies and representatives of the Tallinn University of Technology to embark on a smart product pilot together. Instead of creating yet another mobile app or technology appliance, the decision was taken to create a smart product in a sector that is traditional to its core. This is why the meeting with Protex took place. The Estonian smart electronics cluster ESTRONICS and electronics companies also joined the project. The cooperation led to the birth of Ragnarok 2.0.
Having a supercomputer in your command
Ragnarok 2.0 is a new generation textile product. First, it is of course a very practical piece of clothing: it offers breathable rain protection needed in the tough North-European climate. The clothing also has a visually noticeable colour, which is essential at sea.
But Ragnarok 2.0 is so much more than just clothing. Its ad added protection and productivity layer. One might say it is a bit like having a 6th sense or supercomputer in your command.
The company’s Sales Manager Urmas Reinsberg explains that the smart clothing is meant to fulfil the needs of its wearer. In the modern fishing industry, fish are grown in enormous cages, which are either situated in coastal waters or further at sea. The task of workers is to inspect the cages and compile short reports.
Ragnarok 2.0 clothing includes speech recognition. Workers can record their notes orally into the microphone inside the collar, which eliminates the need to look for a pen and paper on the stormy seas. It is, however, not only about user comfort − the notes in text form reach the headquarters much faster, where they can be analysed and reacted upon.
Safety is no less important. Movement detectors integrated into the clothing notify in real-time whether the worker falls down on a smooth surface or into the sea over the railing. The GPS signal immediately shows the position of the person. In addition, the clothing has safety lighting or a signal lamp that help to find the person in case of an accident. Monitors measure body temperature.
‘Hence all the features of Ragnarok 2.0 have been created on the basis of actual needs of the company and its employees,’ says Almqvist.
The benefits are threefold. ‘First and foremost it means improved job safety, which is important because the accidents at work in this branch of the industry are more serious than the average. Secondly, the workers can focus on what they are good at − fishermen are a bit like cowboys, they hate writing reports at sea. Thirdly, the management will receive much faster and more accurate date on the activities of the company,’ Almqvist explains.
Several prototypes created with customers
‘The company would not have reached this result alone,’ says Almqvist. Most importantly, they had best-in-class partners in the project. She praises the trust of the owners of the company who recognised the benefits of investing in innovation. And the clients, of course, were equally important.
‘We listened to the wishes and needs of the customer and tried to reach a result that would benefit them. It was a tight collaboration, for the first collection, we sent 6-7 prototypes to the clients who gave their feedback, which we then took into consideration in creating the next versions,’ she explains.
The smart clothing will directly benefit the fishing business as well as the clothes producer. ‘It is more efficient work, margins are rising,’ says Almqvist. And the fishermen at sea seem to be happy too, as they do not need to write any reports.
If the Ragnarok clothing seems like something out of a science fiction movie, it is the right impression. Creating such a 21st century textile product would not have been possible through one company or organisation alone.
This is where the importance of collaboration of companies and clusters becomes evident. The creation of the prototype was supported by the European Regional Development Fund’s “Estonian ICT Cluster” and the “Smart Electronics Cluster ESTRONICS” in the framework of several projects. The participants included Protex Balti AS, Estonian ICT cluster, ESTRONICS, Tallinn University of Technology, Ericsson Estonia, Wazomby Labs and Estrotech.
‘We cannot get around the keyword of collaboration,’ says Reinsberg. This collaboration has been very successful as proven by the Swedish Business Award in the category of technological innovation, which they won last year. The Ragnarok work uniform was initially created as part of the project presented at the international conference Manufuture, which took place in Tallinn in October last year, but the work did not stop there.
‘It is a sign of success when partners decide to keep developing the product after the project has ended,’ explains Reinsberg. Protex and Tallinn University of Technology continue to develop the Ragnar smart clothing with real customers − a market leading Estonian maritime company and a well-known Norwegian fish farming company. The success story continues.