Leather making can be dated back to thousands of years ago. Use of animal skin served two main purposes; shelter and clothing. However, some early wall paintings indicate leather being used in making sandals, military equipment, buckets, etc.. In the 18th Century leather making was not a pleasant activity; it involved lots of dirty work. During this era, manufacturing of leather involved crude processes such as dipping the skin in lime and urine to remove remaining hair or flesh. The industries were not short of bad stench from dog faeces used to soften and preserve animal skin. The smell was hardly bearable and as a result, leather making came to be outlawed from the City and its environs.
Modern technology has since saturated old methods and uses chemicals such as chromium among others during processing. It is worth noting that some of these chemicals contain caustic substances. The world of leather making is becoming increasingly scrutinized as questions on the relationship between human beings and other animals escalate by the day. Amidst all this is a $100 billion-a-year leather business highly prized for its suppleness and durability.
The opposing facts that revolve around leather manufacturing bring about room for technological disruption. Subsequently, a rather unique substitute for leather is in its final stages. This time not from a synthetic polymer, as with most products, but from certain synthetic materials made from factories.
The newest practitioner to experiment with this method of growing leather is Modern Meadow, an American Company. The firm has raised over $50m and is ready to introduce the new materials to clothing stores, shoes, automotive as well as furniture factories. After developing a few prototypes in Brooklyn, New York, the firm is set to begin production trials in yet another laboratory in Nutley, New Jersey.
Factory grown leather has a couple of advantages over animal skins. It can be cut into straight sheets as opposed to the irregular shapes conspicuous with animal skin. Another advantage is that the new material is far more consistent than natural leather. This means the quality, color and texture do not differ as it does from animal to animal. All these factors improve quality and reduce waste. Furthermore, those that are sentimental about animal’s lives may be pleased with an alternative that doesn’t involve killing of animals.
Modern Meadow uses advanced technology to genetically create a protein similar to bovine collagen- the fundamental protein in animals. The proteins, with help of fibroblasts, join together to form fibres. Modern Meadow has formulated a method of activating the building blocks of proteins to form fibres without using natural fibroblasts. Once the fibres form, they can as well be assembled, according to its intended purposes, into fine sheets of leather. Once the process reaches this point, other processes like tanning and dyeing can proceed in the normal way.
According to the company’s chief technology offices, Dave Williamson, the whole process has been carefully planned in a way that the company can easily operate several industries. He further stated that the collagens would be manufactured in large scale and then transported to other factories for tanning and final processing. In terms of cost, Dr. Williamson was positive that the material will have competitive prices as compared to natural leather.
Another benefit that is widely considered in the manufacturing process of synthetic leather, is the ability to change the different parts of the sheet to contain different properties. For instance, one part can be tough while the other is made soft. This allows for countless types of products to be made depending on the customer’s preference. Another perspective that Modern Meadow is hinting at is the possibility of changing a few parameters that would see manufacturing go beyond cow hides. It is however not confirmed as an ongoing process.
In another statement, Dr Williamson states that Modern Meadow should not be seen as a rival coming to wipe out manufacture of natural leather. Instead, the American firm aims to provide perfectionists and other customers an opportunity to have a non-flawed leather material at their disposal. Such cases of technological disruption have occurred, as with the case of synthetic gem-quality diamonds.
The debut showcase of Modern Meadows products will take place on October 1st in New York, where a T-shirt will be the first garment to be engineered from the material. The name of the material will also be revealed on the same day. As biotechnology advances, the new leather-like material will be one of the markers of a leap into the future of biotechnology.