Technological advances in fabric composites lead companies into new markets, and new opportunities in old ones.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
America3’s victory over Stars and Stripes to capture the 1992 America’s Cup did more than fuel widespread enthusiasm for yacht racing in the United States: It fueled development in flexible composites now being applied to a veritable laundry list of products. Cubic Tech Corp. of Mesa, Ariz., owes a market—one that includes parachutes, kites, balloons, airships, tension structures, tubes and tube reinforcements, flexible pressure vessels, tarps, backpacks, medical devices, protective clothing, aerospace equipment and more—to the sailcloth that helped America3 win the world’s most prestigious yachting trophy.
“When applied to airships, our materials allow customers to build hulls, ballonets and other components that enable capabilities and performance previously out of reach,” says Chris Adams, vice president of operations for Cubic Tech, which derived its name from the America Cubed (America3) sailboat. “On an equal-weight basis, our laminates are about 10 times as rip- or tear-propagation resistant and about 50 percent stronger than fabrics previously available.”
Riding with the drivers
Technically, a composite is simply a material that is composed of disparate components that are combined in such a way that the finished product has different properties than each component could achieve on its own. Therefore, a vinyl-laminated fabric is a flexible composite.
Composites use a textile base fabric and a matrix material. Woven, knit, braided and even nonwoven fabric structures can be used as textile base materials; the matrix material can be polymers, ceramics or metal. Some composites, like vinyl laminates, are flexible, and others can be rigid. Flexible composites use this enhanced performance capability to help companies reach new markets and to expand what they can offer in existing markets.
Darius Shirzadi, product and business manager for the Engineered Membrane Division of Cooley Specialty Products, Pawtucket, R.I., says his company’s military work is growing. “Technology is driving a lot of those products to stand up better, to be more durable. It’s the same for the environmental industry.” As an example, he mentions a flexible door (basically a vapor barrier) in a pharmaceutical factory, and says the driver for new development is the need for products that hold up to extremes, including volatile chemicals.
“We are experimenting with new types of polymer coatings and base fabrics as they become available,” Shirzadi says. “Because it’s a custom business, we are always researching what the market needs.” Cooley designs, develops and manufactures high-performance materials for environmental containment liners, fuel and water tanks, medical products, signage and awnings, roofing membranes and specialty applications.
Avia Draggon, marketing manager for TechFiber of Tempe, Ariz., suggests that expanding a company’s repertoire means adapting processes. “TechFiber has always worked with flexible composites, but we have changed our inputs over the years,” she says. “In the past, we were heavy into glass; now we are more focused on aramids and polypropylene. In the future, we expect to go after more composite markets than the ballistic markets where our focus is now.”
Cubic Tech develops new materials on a monthly basis, using the newest component materials available. “The general trend in our industry has been toward creating high-quality performance products at the best prices possible,” Adams says. “As a materials supplier, we are interested in working with our vendors and customers in exploring markets that make good business sense. We have … ongoing relationships with large corporations, while we continue to support and cater to small, high-performance product customers. One market rapidly growing for us is the outdoor industry, where there is a high demand for lightweight materials in applications such as tarps, tents, backpacks and apparel.”
Cooley evolved from making awning fabrics in the 1920s to making tarp-type products and inflatables, until Asian and European companies entered the United States and turned those products into commodities. “We moved to more specialized, custom products,” Shirzadi says. “We have always gone on to innovate higher-performing, higher-profitability products.”
Cooley—which focuses entirely on custom applications and has used composite materials such as polyester, PET, nylon, Kevlar®, Zylon® mixed with PVC, PVC with Avalon®, polyurethane and triple plastic olefin—is doing more work with PVDF (polyvinylidene fluoride) and is experimenting with polypropylene-based fabrics.
“Some [materials] have become either market- or customer-driven,” Shirzadi says. “A lot of times, customers will drive us toward starting to work with new poly coatings or fabrics because it’s what they need based on chemical resistance or strength or permeability.”
Tools and expertise
TechFiber uses polypropylene and polyethylene with aramids, Kevlar, Twaron® and Innegra™. “The composite trend is to create a strong fabric for construction applications and concrete remediation,” Draggon says. “The ability to make unidirectional fabrics with various fibers is a must. We have a significant investment in state-of-the-art equipment. To work with unidirectional fabrics, you need to have specialized equipment to take bobbins and form them into fabric.”
Flexible composites, especially thicker fabrics, may also require a nonstandard cutter. “They require a slower speed,” says Lance Khubchandani, president of Maimin Technology Group Inc. of Gurnee, Ill., explaining that blades in faster cutters get too hot for some flexible composites and melt the layers, or the cut material fuses back together. “We found that a much slower blade speed will help us keep the heat and friction down,” Khubchandani says.
According to Shirzadi, welding equipment is key when working with thermal plastics, as is a good grasp of their resistance to certain chemicals. “We are generating a lot of information and a guide to our different polymer coatings,” he says. “Customers are requesting that these days. They want to have a bible of different chemicals and how the products you produce stand up to them under different conditions.”
Cubic Tech’s composites can be sewn, though customers usually bond cut pieces of material with seam tape, heat-activated adhesive or ultrasonically activated adhesive. “Our flexible composites typically don’t stretch very much,” Adams says. “Because of this, designers and assembly technicians must be very precise in their planning.”
Companies without their own R & D departments can still reach out to new markets in conjunction with companies that do.
“We can certainly point them in the right direction,” Shirzadi says, “and direct them on how other customers may be using fabrics.”
Draggon echoes that sentiment. “Smaller companies who want to work in the composite field can partner with TechFiber to work on new unidirectionals and new inputs that can benefit their business.”
“Our ability to make a wide range of flexible composites often gives even small companies the opportunity to choose a material that is ideal for their particular end-use application,” Adams says. “Small companies can use our wide materials selection combined with their finished-article design and construction expertise to create high quality and high performance products that make them uniquely competitive.”