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Driving innovation

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The U.S. military and its research and manufacturing partners are exploring new capabilities in uniforms that once were reserved for science fiction. “With the proliferation of electronic devices, electronic textiles will play an ever-increasing role,” says Dr. Eugene Wilusz of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. “Items such as soft keyboards, flexible antennas and physiological status monitors will be utilized. Blood-clotting agents will be incorporated into uniforms to treat wounds, along with smart fabrics that will be able to sense a wound and apply pressure to it. Chameleon camouflage, which adapts itself to the surrounding environment, will be developed so that only one camouflage uniform will be needed.”

Technology that promotes soldier safety is at the forefront. “Companies are making incredible strides in altering the molecular architecture of ultra-strong, energy-absorbing polymers to develop impact-resistant fabrics that protect against projectile threats,” says Bob Rosania of Ehmke Mfg. Co. Inc. “Fabrics that combine thermoplastic composites are now being used to protect our soldiers from IEDs and kinetic threats. Nanotechnology fabrics that respond to environmental conditions are being explored to provide soldiers with a ‘second skin’ that can repel chemical and biological threats while remaining highly breathable.”

According to Cath Rogan of Smart Garment People, “smart” clothing—that which contains integrated electrical circuits, sensors or drug delivery systems, for example—is likely to make a big commercial impact in the next two to five years. For the military market, “the situation is more complex, but the fact that military buyers have been trialing smartphones and commercial heads-up displays shows that they, too, are looking beyond the traditional supply chain for creative and cost-effective solutions now,” Rogan notes. “Savvy suppliers need to be doing the same. As focus starts to switch from cost to value, innovation is the key, not only to leading the way, but even to just remaining in the game.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Joshua Tree, Calif.

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