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Growth meets change in protective textiles

May 20th, 2019 / By: / Feature

Innovating and commercializing to participate in future opportunities.

by Seshadri Ramkumar

Towelie™ is said to be the first biodegradable oil sorbent technology, functional as a wipe, mat, and a floating sorbent. It was created by engineers and outdoorsmen in the oil and gas industry to reduce the environmental impact of waste generated in oil exploration, production and transportation. Photo: Towelie.

The textiles sector has been reshaping itself due to the increasing cost of raw materials, sustainability issues, labor costs and regulatory issues. These, in a way, have been a boon to the traditional textiles sector, prompting more diverse products and value-added products with industry focus on research and developmental.

Such a necessity has enabled small- and medium-scale enterprises to develop their core strength in R&D and advanced product development. Textile technologies that focus on national defense, human health enhancements and environmental protection can provide rich returns as the market is already defined, due to procurement restrictions based in governing regulations, such as the Berry Amendment in the United States of America.

The growth picture

Andrew Aho, vice president for new business development, Industrial Fabric Association International (IFAI), recently provided the growth numbers for the advanced textiles sector at the 2019 Nonwovens Engineers and Technologists Conference (NET 2019) presented by TAPPI in Indianapolis. Protective textiles are an important growth sector included in the specialty fabrics industry. Overall, the growth for advanced textiles is estimated to be about 9 percent and is valued at $71 billion, according to IFAI.

The protective textiles contribution to this sector is 6 percent. Other important contributors are high performance clothing, composites, coated textiles and smart textiles. Given that the United States’ GDP is growing about 3.2 percent, the growth in the technical textiles sector is progressing extremely well.

The nonwoven fabrics industry, which contributes to protective textiles, is expected to grow about 6.9 percent according to the Cary-based Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA). Data for the past 28 years shows that the nonwovens industry in North America has registered an average growth of 4.6 percent, while the GDP has been trending below according to Brad Kalil, director of market research and statistics for INDA.

In the protective sector, high surface area nonwoven substrates find applications in absorbent hygiene, industrial, chemical and biological decontamination wipes, filtration and medical. Depending on the level of protection, i.e., consumer, first responders, local law enforcement and defense, factors may vary, such as technology sophistication, regulations and requirements—and, of course, price.

Research and development activities in the defense sector are predominantly supported by public tax dollars funneled through government agencies and laboratories. Therefore, there is a good supportive ecosystem that can be utilized by small- and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs). In the U.S., SMEs like Chantilly-based First Line Tech LLC have been quite successful in translating laboratory and academic research into valuable products utilizing government’s supportive mechanisms.   

FiberTect nonwoven wipes were designed to military and first responders to clean toxic chemicals off personal protective equipment. Photo: First Line Technology.

Translational research

In the commercialization world, translating a research idea and a prototype product from laboratory to commercial space can be so challenging, that it’s earned the nickname “death-valley.” President and CEO of First Line Technology Amit Kapoor provided some practical and useful insights on how to commercialize a defense product at the NET 2019 conference.

Using FiberTect decontamination wipe as a case study, Kapoor articulated important aspects in the innovation process. According to him, these are:

  1. Money, or funding support
  2. Patience, which translates into having time
  3. Need, which also means market expectations

It was evident from his case study that, while it is good to have novel ideas and develop laboratory prototypes, it is important to plan how to execute Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP). This is akin to plant breeding in a greenhouse, which must be evaluated using field plots under natural growing conditions.

Similarly, unless products can be developed using existing or refined production processes, time to commercialization may be extended, which will affect market penetration. Therefore, focus should not only be on research, but also other aspects, such as product development, scaling-up and marketing.

According to Kapoor, textile wipes have helped with the development of a new decontamination concept, “wipe-spray-wipe.” The wipe helps with bulk decontamination and the concept is gaining acceptance. “Novel techniques and products are effective if they tackle a problem and offer the right price,” he says.

Development and diversification

Research and development efforts aimed at personnel protection can spin-off into many industrial and consumer applications. This is was underscored by the concept of the Military –Industrial Complex” that emerged in the U.S. during World War II.. Since then it has been playing a vital role in boosting the research enterprise.

Textiles have benefitted from defense projects, such as personnel protection, chemical and biological countermeasures, and ballistic protection. Some of these products have fallen into other industrial and consumer marketplaces; some recent examples serve as testimony to this dynamic.

Multilayered flexible wipes, originally developed for low-cost personnel decontamination, are now used in environmental clean-up situations. In a recent presentation at Texas Tech University, Lu Yu, principal toxicologist with Phillips 66, asked the audience what comes to mind about petroleum streams. The first answer from the audience was “oil spill.”  This highlights the impact crude oil spills have on the public and the economy.

Recently, young entrepreneurs established Towelieglobal.com based in Lubbock, Texas, an startup that has commercialized oil absorbent wipes (“Towelie,”), bringing new industrial wipes into marketplace.

The protective textiles sector is attracting the conventional spinners and weaving industry, as margins in their existing businesses are shrinking. Coimbatore, India-based Kanaka Lakshmi Mills (KLM) has been weaving base fabrics for coated abrasives since 2000 with 32 projectile looms. KLM is now venturing into developing high performance composite preforms and defense clothing.

This effort by a weaver is a good example of strategic diversification based on core expertise. Companies like Towelieglobal and KLM articulate that protective and high-performance textiles provide opportunities for new startups in the textiles field. Other areas that are worth looking include smart fabric sand wearables, 3D printing of textiles, and specialized cutting and sewing for advanced textiles.

Chemical formulation companies can also diversify into functional finishes. Bengaluru, India-based Resil Chemicals have come-up with PureSilver™ technology that due to (111) crystal planes help with achieving higher efficiency at lower loads. Chemicals that can help with moisture management and enhance the comfort levels for soldiers and first responders should find plenty of possible applications.

Because of demand, protective textiles, particular for applications in health and environmental remediation, provide greener pastures for research and development companies, SMEs and established entities. Diversification based on core competency should be the mantra for businesses that want to enter into new markets that address minimizing risk.    

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is the director of the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.