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PPE systems benefit from a developmental approach

In the Industry | October 7, 2019 | By:

Marc Mathews recalls his time as a Marine stationed in Iraq, where he wondered about the design and origins of the personal protective equipment (PPE) he wore. “Who made this?” he contemplated. “Who thought this was a good system? Did they test it?”

Today, Mathews is a research associate with the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) at North Carolina State University (NC State), which means that he is now part of a team that researches, tests and evaluates the comfort and protective performance of textile materials, garments and ensemble systems. Mathews presented considerations for developing advanced protective garment systems at the pre-IFAI Expo Advance Textiles Conference Oct. 1, in Orlando Fla.

The global market for protective clothing was valued at $8.8 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $11.9 billion by 2024, he said. In particular, the smart PPE market is expected to see a 16 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2019 to 2023. North America is the largest market, and thermal and chemical protective clothing are two of the largest and fastest growing segments. 

Mathews described the market as one with high stakes and complex architectures: a product may have many parts or layers; the design must balance protection with comfort; and interfaces, such as where a glove meets a suit, are critical to effectiveness. It can be difficult to capture all user needs or wants for the environment where the product will actually be used, he said.

An effective developmental approach draws from an engineering-based approach for complex systems, such as an aircraft carrier, and applies the process to the development of protective clothing. This approach helps to reduce overall technical and acceptability risk, reduces costs, systematically defines technical requirements, makes informed decisions earlier in the process, and better optimizes performance trade-offs, such as comfort verses protection. 

Mathews said that one of the challenges for this market is that change can be difficult for the end user. Users often have the most specific information that developers need, and bringing users into the process early helps to avoid late-stage revisions. “Users are very willing to tell you what you are doing wrong,” he says. A developmental approach also helps to capture unspoken user expectations. The goal is always to make better systems, more efficiently, at lower risk, and give the end user protection, function and performance. 

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