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Cotton Naturally

James C. Phillips Jr.

CottonBy James C. Phillips Jr. Cotton Naturally More than 200 years of improved crops, technology bring modern comfort to the consumer. In the 1790s, the American South was in dire need of a lucrative cash crop to fuel its struggling economy. At the time, tobacco was the prevailing choice, but it so stripped the soil of richness that it could be planted only every other year. During off years, fields had to lie fallow to rebuild necessary soil nutrients.Cotton also was given serious consideration, but the only usable crop in the United States was the long-staple variety that grew in small plots along the coast. It was relatively easy to separate the long, flowing fibers from the seeds. But there were hardly enough land and resources to cultivate the crop in sufficient quantities to make it the cornerstone upon which the regions economic foundation could be built. By 1793, the issue was approaching critical proportions as a young, war-ravaged country sought to take its first unsteady steps toward joining the worlds community of nations.At the time, an ingenious but somewhat aimless young man had wandered south in search of a job. His burning desire was to be an attorney, but he didnt have the resources to pursue this ambition. To pay off debts, he began working on the plantation of Southern aristocrat Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Greene.

Photographed By Brad RobbCourtesy of the Cotton Board One night, in a conversation between the young man and the plantations foreman, the talk turned again to the cultivation of a crop that could provide the South with an infusion of money. Cotton was still an option, but only if a way could be found to profitably farm the short-staple cotton variety that grew in the sandy soil and red clay away from the coast. There was plenty of land on which to raise this variety of cotton, but harvesting was time-consuming and costly. The fibers clung viselike to the many sticky green seeds in each boll. Separating the short fibers from the seed was such an unwieldy undertaking that few farmers were willing even to make the attempt. It could take up to 10 hours of tedious work by hand to separate a single pound of cotton fiber from almost three pounds of seeds. Eli Whitney's Cotton GinSo, the foreman challenged the young man, who had considerable engineering skills, to find a way to make the harvesting of upland cotton economically viable. Young Eli Whitney began studying manual cotton cleaning, observing the hand motions involved. One hand would grasp the seed while the other would tease away the short fibers. Whitney designed a machine that would duplicate those motions. Seeing the potential profit, he registered his machine with the US Patent Office in 1794. Whitney called his invention a cotton gin, with gin being a short form of the word engine.Whitneys cotton gin consisted of a cylinder on which a number of teeth were attached. As the cylinder turned, the teeth traveled between the ribs of a comb. When cotton was fed into the gin, the teeth caught the cotton fibers and pulled them through the comb. The seeds were too large to pass through the comb and were pulled away from the fiber.The cotton gin gave birth to the agrarian economy that built the South into a land of wealth through much of the 19th century. It also provided the raw material for the textile manufacturing that, along with steel, would transform a small, struggling nation into the most powerful economic force in the history of the world.More than 200 years have passed since that fateful challenge to Eli Whitney. Whitney went on to become one of the most influential figures in the history of manufacturing. Shortly after he invented the cotton gin, he complained of its unprofitability. Cheated of much of the royalty income, he eventually abandoned his invention and began pursuing other roads to profit. He was the first to see the potential in mass production. In 1804, using rifles as a prototype for his process, he was the first to design products with interchangeable parts. But it was his cotton gin that made him famous. It was a product so well-conceived and so simple that its basic design remains unchanged to this day. The Cotton Gin Two Centuries LaterAlong the back roads of central Alabama, visitors can get a glimpse of America decorated with her most diverse make-up. Miles upon miles of farmland winds around the Tennessee River, broken up by an occasional small factory or service station. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, mammoth rocket and jet engine facilities and sprawling logistics operations loom, planted amid the cotton fields and soybean farms in homage to NASAs presence in nearby Huntsville.Further along the Tennessee River, not far from Boeings rocket facility in Decatur, is the tiny town of Courtland. It is in this town that Eli Whitneys gin, still using the same basic design he provided two centuries ago, is adding new efficiencies and value to cotton processing.While the cotton gin no doubt provided great impetus to the US economy all those years ago, it is not without its problems today. It can literally ravage a cotton boll, stretching, breaking and otherwise damaging fiber and causing a high percentage of waste.Servico Inc., a Courtland gin company, has been working with Zellweger Uster Inc., Charlotte, and Gastonia, N.C.-based Parkdale Inc. over the past few years to improve the way cotton is processed.It has been our practice, out of necessity, to overprocess cotton, said Robert W. Bobby Greene, Servicos president and CEO. We overprocessed in order to ensure that none of the cotton was underprocessed. As a consequence, the more processing we do to cotton, the more we damage the fiber. This can have a considerable effect on cotton spinners, such as Parkdale. Zellweger Uster had a solution for Servico. The companys IntelliGin system is a computerized, on-line fiber quality measuring system that monitors, controls and optimizes the cotton ginning process, according to Joseph M. Yankey, senior product marketing manager for Zellweger Uster.US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists developed the concept for IntelliGin in the early 1990s. Historically, all cotton went through the same cleaning and drying sequence regardless of moisture content, color or foreign matter contamination.
Zellweger Uster's IntelliGin is a computerized, on-line cotton fiber quality measuring system. In an effort to improve yield for farmers and make cotton more consistent for manufacturers, the USDAs Agricultural Research Service began looking at ways to monitor variables throughout the process. A set of sensors monitors the quality of cotton at the beginning of the ginning process. The first set of sensors, situated at the module feeder, measures fiber moisture, trash and color in the seed cotton to determine the best level of precleaning and drying.Sensor two, which is located behind the gin stand, measures fiber moisture, trash levels and color to verify the decisions made at drying and precleaning. These measurements, according to Yankey, also are used to determine the amount of lint cleaning.Sensor three, positioned just past the lint cleaners, gives a final reading of fiber moisture, trash and color to ensure the accuracy of the readings before the cotton enters the bale press. This information can be used to make adjustments to the process, and assign color, trash and moisture properties in the bale. 
The main console of the IntelliGin system, Yankey says, features a touch screen that gives the ginner a complete picture of the process and allows control of the dryer and bypass valves. The bypass valves are added between seed cotton cleaners and lint cleaners to allow the cotton to automatically bypass equipment and be rerouted. The ginner is able to process cotton only through the machinery necessary to achieve the best grades, eliminating the problem of overprocessing.IntelliGins controls let the ginner adjust the dryer to match incoming cotton moisture and improve fiber moisture levels, Yankey said. Optimum dryer levels not only produce the greatest turnout, but also reduce drying costs and preserve fiber properties.Additional features of IntelliGin include administrative and reporting software and an off-line micronaire station that gives immediate feedback on micronaire levels.Process improvements, such as IntelliGin, have the potential to impact both cotton farmers and end-users. In a 2000 presentation before the Georgia Cotton Production Workshop, an annual event sponsored by the University of Georgia, consulting engineer Bill Mayfield called process improvement the next major innovation that will be embraced by cotton ginners. The potential to improve both the textile utility of cotton and the value to the producer is very clear, he said.I believe that process control is an obvious addition to ginning technology and that itll be the next major change to be widely adopted in the cotton ginning industry. Some ginners have kept an eye on the seed cotton coming in and bypassed a lint cleaner when the cotton appeared clean and when grades were high. So, the practical way to maximize the value of a particular lot of seed cotton is to control the drying and cleaning in the gin. Gin cleaning can be affected in two ways by controlling the drying, and by changing the number of cleaners in the ginning process. Increasing YieldThe greatest benefit for cotton producers and ginners is the increased yield. In Servicos case, for example, after upgrades to its IntelliGin pilot program in 1997 and 1998, the total increased value was about $60 per bale. This included improved turnout, marketing advantages, and bale storage and handling efficiencies.For textile manufacturers, however, the ability to classify bales by quality instead of just by bale number is a huge advantage, according to Gene Frye of Parkdale.Before innovations such as IntelliGin, cotton was stored in warehouses according to bale numbers. Traditionally, if a manufacturer such as Parkdale wanted 200 bales of a certain quality from Servico, the ginner would have to pull those by bale number, which might entail going through 200,000 bales to find the right product. The bales would be pulled from the stacks by forklift, often breaking or damaging surrounding bales.Now, if Parkdale wants 200 bales of a certain quality, I can go to the bale block where it is stored and pull the first 200 bales, said Servicos Greene.For Parkdale, the system eliminates storage and testing inefficiencies. Before IntelliGin, the yarn spinner had to store cotton as it was delivered from the gin, test the cotton and then organize the bales into blocks of similar quality. It has been a big gain in efficiency for us, Frye said.For Servico, which still processes cotton for other customers in the usual fashion, the warehouse savings alone are substantial. We have been able to increase warehouse space utilization efficiency by about 35 percent by not having to store cotton in the traditional way, Greene said.About 20 million bales of cotton are produced annually in the United States. Of this, about four million bales do not require all the normal stages of processing. Lint loss can be reduced by as much as 50 percent equivalent to a gain of about 10 pounds per bale. Cotton PropertiesWhile companies such as Servico and Zellweger Uster have focused on processing, others have concentrated on manufacturing technology and consumer demand. For a period of time, consumer consumption of cotton was static, as more and more varieties of man-made fiber were developed with properties and a feel similar to natural products.Cotton Incorporated, the research and marketing arm of the US cotton producers and importers, however, has been involved in a number of initiatives designed to increase the consumer friendliness of cotton products. Wrinkle resistance, fade resistance, and durability are just a few of the enhancements that have fueled cottons resurgence in the apparel markets. Coupled with the Casual Friday phenomenon that has added khaki to the wardrobe of many business men and women, cotton continues to hold its own as the fiber of choice among US consumers.Throughout the world almost everywhere except the United States growth in cotton products has been down for the past dozen years, according to J. Berrye Worsham, III, president and CEO, Cotton Incorporated. The US market is driving world demand for cotton, he said. Research And DevelopmentEarlier this year, Textile World was invited to Cotton Incorporateds two-year-old world headquarters in Cary, N.C., for a first-hand look at the organization that has made the cotton logo among the worlds most recognized symbols.For 2002, Cotton Incorporated has a total operating budget of $63 million, Worsham said. That money funds two basic missions: research and marketing. Marketing outpaces research in budget allocation by a 2:1 margin. However, human resources are allocated almost 50/50, with textile research and development accounting for the larger area of concentration. Within the two areas of focus, Cotton Incorporated has four operating divisions: Strategic Planning; Consumer Marketing; Global Product Marketing; and Research.In research, areas of focus are in agriculture, fiber quality, textiles and fiber management research. In marketing, the organization promotes textiles and apparel made from cotton. Agricultural ResearchA primary focus of Cotton Incorporateds agricultural research efforts is to link cotton growers, the textile industry, and research and extension communities. The mission statement of the agricultural research function is to improve the profitability of cotton through the creation and utilization of knowledge in the agricultural sciences.Among the various initiatives underway are programs geared to breeding and genetics, production systems, conservation tillage, precision farming, production economics, cottonseed, quality, weeds, insects, diseases, pesticide eradication and more.An example of what Cotton Incorporated is attempting to accomplish in these programs can be found in its cotton breeding and genetics initiative. The projects goal is the improvement in crop yield and fiber quality by developing cottons germplasm. Germplasm is the hereditary material passed from one generation to the next. The aim is to address issues of genetic diversity, yield stagnation and declining fiber quality by identifying and fine-tuning the genes that control fiber quality.Research into cotton production systems focuses on row spacing, planting patterns and plant population with the ideal of developing new methods to improve profitability and create an improved variety of cotton.Research on genomic technologies and DNA markers will permit identification of genes controlling fiber quality and will facilitate fine-tuning and the modification of value-added fiber. For conservation tillage, the goal is the optimization of existing systems to manage fertility and control emerging pests.Precision farming techniques are also a point of emphasis for Cotton Incorporateds agricultural research. New technology yield monitors, global positioning systems (GPS) and aerial photography analysis has the opportunity to provide quick response to situations in the cotton field and to enable the management of cotton production in units smaller than the entire field. Initiatives for 2002 included measuring the variability of soil and yield within fields and continued study of remote sensing to determine crop status.The cottonseed program seeks to provide maximum cotton-grower profit from seed, which is used as livestock feed. In management of weeds, insects and diseases, Cotton Incorporateds research focuses on pesticide resistance, boll weevil eradication and sticky cotton. Sticky cotton is a result of sugars secreted from aphids and whiteflies and creates higher costs for the growers, increased headaches for the ginner and reduced efficiency for the textile manufacturer.Cotton Incorporated has a high-profile consumer advertising program and allocates approximately $25 million a year for the media messages that have made a generation aware that cotton is The Fabric of Our Lives, according to Dean B. Turner, senior vice president, Global Product Marketing. However, despite the well-produced television commercials, the innovative newspaper and magazine ads, and the creative shopping mall promotions, it is, perhaps, in textile research that Cotton Incorporated has the most impact.We invest about $17 or $18 million a year in research, said Preston Sasser, Ph.D., senior vice president and managing director of research. That accounts for about 28 percent of our corporate budget. The five departments within Cotton Incorporateds Textile Research and Implementation Division (tr&I) are fiber processing, fabric development, dyeing and finishing, textile chemistry, and nonwovens. The mission of the division, according to Cotton Incorporated, is to improve US cottons competitive edge through applied research, product and process evaluations, and technical service. Implementation of new and improved technology, along with the introduction of new cotton products, will ensure that cotton maintains a strong market position.
One of the functions of Cotton Incorporated's tr&I dyeingandfinishing lab is to develop new finishes for consumer clothing. Cotton Incorporateds Fiber Processing Laboratory is a full-scale, state-of-the-art yarn-processing pilot facility, according to Donald L. Bailey, vice president, tr&I. From bale to yarn, this facility houses a wide variety of yarn-manufacturing equipment. Opening, blending, cleaning, carding, drawing, combing, and capabilities for spinning yarn on any of the three current short-staple systems are available.Lab machinery includes Murata Vortex Spinning (MVS) technology, as well as rotor machines from both Schlafhorst and Rieter. A Suessen EliTe ring-spinning machine is also in place, as is a Saurer two-for-one twister. Lab research includes work on raw material selection, short fiber content, sticky cotton processing, yarn evenness and general quality improvement, barr44; machine maintenance and efficiency improvement, and new technology and process evaluations.In dyeing and finishing, Cotton Incorporated provides research in such areas as washdown, process improvement and product evaluation. The finishing research laboratory develops and analyzes new finishes and applications. Augmenting its research capabilities in areas of traditional textile manufacturing, Cotton Incorporated maintains a nonwovens lab in Raleigh, N.C., at North Carolina State University (NCSU).The organization also conducts research in textile chemistry, including analytical services, applied research, flammability and fire retardant research, product safety, and environmental research. Creating OpportunitiesIn 2003, Cotton Incorporated will operate on a budget of $62 million, approved during the annual meeting of the Cotton Board this past September. Although the industry continues to face stagnant yields, increased costs, along with other regional problems, US cotton producers and importers can be assured that components of Cotton Incorporateds 2003 budget will continue to create new opportunities for US upland cotton, while turning economic downs into stepping stones, said John Pucheu Jr., Cotton Board chairman and a cotton producer from Tranquility, Calif.  
The lobby at Cotton Incorporated's headquarters in Cary, N.C.Additionally, Pucheu said Cotton Incorporateds partnership with Cotton Council International (CCI) continues to create cotton opportunities worldwide through international summits and trade missions to the Caribbean Basin and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Keith Collins, Ph.D., chief economist for the USDA, noted that the 2002-2003 cotton crop, at an estimated 18.4 million bales, is down from last year but is still among the four highest on record. There is a tremendous base domestically and abroad for your cotton, Collins said at the Cotton Boards annual meeting. The world wants your cotton, so your job is simple. The key is to keep it this way.Since 1990, cotton consumer demand in the United States has risen by 7.7 million bales, due largely to the marketing efforts of Cotton Incorporated.The United States market is the sole driver of demand of cotton during the past decade. Cottons market share is up six percentage points in the United States since 1990. During the same years, cottons market share in the rest of the world has dropped 11 percentage points, Worsham said.  Marketing To The WorldCotton Incorporated is planning to focus on major international markets during the coming year. Consumer markets in the rest of the world account for three times the size of the US consumer market. Expanding these markets would be extremely beneficial for US cotton, concluded Worsham. The powers that be at Cotton Incorporated, including such men as Worsham, Turner, Sasser and Bailey, understand that, for cotton to gain market share in the rest of the world, it must be marketed to savvy consumers who understand its benefits in comfort, fashion and ease of care. To do so will require consumer awareness and product marketing that establishes cottons brand worldwide. Evidence of the power of this marketing can be found in research into consumer buying habits in the United States. Merchandise carrying the Seal of Cotton logo sells 27 percent more than merchandise without it. In the United States, cotton is, indeed, the fabric of our lives. The next mission is to make it the fabric of the world.Perhaps, had Eli Whitney realized the full scope of the impact he would have when he accepted the challenge from the widow Greenes plantation foreman, he might not have given up quite so quickly on making money from his cotton gin. Certainly, generations of others have profited mightily. December 2002



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