The future is high-tech if you’re planning to stay ahead of the game.
By Jamie Swedberg
There’s nothing particularly predator-like about narrow fabrics designers and manufacturers. By and large, they’re helpful folks, always working with their clients to create webbings and ropes with the perfect color, thickness, width and performance characteristics. But they’re still a bit like sharks: They must always keep moving forward or die.
Narrow fabrics manufacturers are subject to the same market conditions as all fabric makers. They know that the moment they perfect a product, a competitor with lower overhead will bid the job at a lower price. Luckily for U.S. companies, many of the markets for narrow fabrics are in technical fields that demand constant innovation. Certainly there will always be room for more seat belts, upholstery trims and dog leashes. But narrow fabrics companies that manufacture stateside are looking more and more to the high-tech world. They’re pushing the limits of their craft as they make components for the military, aerospace and medical fields.
Narrow fabrics manufacturers produce 3D structures
Since 1923, Bally Ribbon Mills, Bally, Pa., has engineered highly specialized custom woven goods for its customers. Today about 30 percent of its output goes to high-tech industries. To ensure its place in the market, the manufacturer recently invested in a unique quad-axial loom that allows the company to weave fabric in as many as four axes simultaneously. What on earth for, you ask?
One answer is a strange structure that the company calls “the pi,” after the shape of the Greek letter . It’s a trilobate strip made of carbon fiber, used in the aerospace industry. It allows a perpendicular “wall” piece (sandwiched between the legs of the pi) to be joined to a flat plane or beam with enormous security.
“This joint is stronger than if you were to rivet it or weld it or anything of that nature, because it’s all woven at the same time, as one solid unit,” says Bally sales manager Bill Hornig. “It’s used principally in aircraft. It’s not going to fatigue like metal will over the course of time, and it’s so much lighter and so much stronger.”
Some of the company’s other three-dimensional structures do not require a special loom, so they have counterparts at other narrow fabrics companies. Monofilament cooking oil filters and blood filters, for example, are woven in a tube shape. Bally markets one hourglass-shaped microfiber artery stent that requires no sutures because it’s designed to expand against the wall of the blood vessel when warmed to body temperature.
DuPont’s Teflon® appears in a couple of unusual narrow fabrics applications. Bally makes a pure Teflon tube for the military and aerospace industries that is used as a parachute pack; the slippery PTFE helps the chute deploy without a hitch. Teflon is also chemically inert and pH-balanced, so it’s an ideal material to attach radio packs to birds so that scientists can track their migrations.
The challenges of developing e-textiles
Several years ago, Foster-Miller Inc., a technology research and development firm in Waltham, Mass., forged a partnership with Chester, N.J.-based Offray Specialty Narrow Fabrics to develop e-textile narrow fabrics for the U.S. military. The two firms received a grant to research the use of narrow fabrics as a more flexible, lower-profile alternative to traditional electronic cables.
“The functionalities depended on the item,” says Foster-Miller senior engineer Cheryl Gomes. “Some of it was like a USB connector, connecting a computer to a battery. You would use [the webbings] for power transfer, data transfer, and input devices like MP3s.”
Currently, the two companies are manufacturing some prototype e-textiles embedded in physiological monitoring shirts. The results may have applications outside the military—the same electronics that keep tabs on a soldier’s health can also be used to record the pulse rate of a runner.
But Bob Thuet, director of sales and business development at Offray, hastens to add that e-textiles are not some kind of narrow fabrics holy grail. For one thing, there’s nothing to keep competitors from jumping into the fray.
“I can take one of these [e-textile webbings] and toss it in front of any decent textile engineer, and in 15 minutes they’ll figure out exactly how it was done,” he says. “It’s just warp and weft. I can put wire from Gore in there, and the loom doesn’t care. I can put conductive yarn from any manufacturer. No matter what unique application you come up with, you have at best a couple of years before someone else is banging on the door.”
For another thing, there’s no killer app yet, no guarantee of massive sales. Even the military hasn’t decided which portable electronics it would like to focus on first (it can’t have them all at once, because the battery pack would be too heavy for a soldier to carry).
“They’d like to have navigation, communications, gun-mounted cameras with displays, signaling devices, signature recognition devices so they can be seen from the air,” says Thuet. “And then there are the biophysical monitoring items: whether the guy’s dead or alive, cold or excited. They’d like to put things like automatic tourniquets in certain segments of the garments. But at this point, none of them have taken off. I consider it for the most part a science project.”
The connectors are a challenge, too. Yes, one end is a USB port, but what connects that port to the cable itself? So far there’s no standard, and it depends on the size of the wire, the flexibility of the material, and numerous other factors.
Still, many e-textiles are in development and have been tested successfully. Some simple ones have already made a sizable dent in the market. Basic polyester webbings with bits of wire woven in are commonly used as antennae. Higher-tech ceramic and Kevlar® conductive strips are used to launch warheads farther than ever before.
Narrow fabrics manufacturers collaborate to innovate
The partnership between Offray and Foster-Miller is part of a larger trend in the industry. To push the boundaries of technology—and to secure a return on your R&D investment—your best bet is to partner with colleagues or clients.
Clare King, owner of Propel LLC, a textile development company in Providence, R.I., agrees. “People are learning that narrow fabrics can provide flexibility and strength at the same time,” she points out. “They’re being used to make products that might not have been developed from narrow fabrics before. People have approached us with interesting product concepts because the actual users, the designers of products, are seeing narrow fabrics as another way of putting together their product idea.”
Bally Ribbon Mills has maintained a long-term partnership with Rexnord Industries LLC, Downers Grove, Ill. Thirty-two years ago, the two companies developed fabric-based greaseless bearings.
“It’s Teflon and Dacron®,” says Hornig. “We weave it in a tube. Then they take the tube, put it over a steel mandrel and wrap fiberglass around it. They wet it with resins and cure it, and then they [grind] the thickness down to whatever they want and cut it into lengths. The resin will stick to the Dacron but not to the Teflon, so consequently you have a greaseless bearing.”
Research and development is where the growth will be, he predicts. Once a product becomes “ordinary,” it goes overseas and the profit margin disappears. The only solution is to stay on the cutting edge.
That explains why nowadays, narrow fabrics manufacturers can be as secretive as their military and medical clientele.
“One of the problems with this stuff is that when you tell people, then everybody knows,” jokes Gomes.
Thuet, too, falls silent when asked about his latest work.
“We sign nondisclosure agreements left and right,” he explains. “R&D is the key. The reason we are secretive is that none of this is long-lasting. Even if you come up with a special unique application, working in concert with an end user, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to patent it. Weaving is the second-oldest profession in the world, so the secrets are out there for everybody to know.”