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Migrating advanced protection technologies

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Just as in sports and recreation, impact protection trends in the military and police fields are toward thinner, lighter, cooler and more flexible products, says Cath Rogan, an independent designer and consultant and owner of Lancashire-based Smart Garment People Ltd. Rogan spent 15 years designing protective gear for the elite sports and outdoor markets and, for the last six years, has been working with clients on advanced protection technologies for the military and law enforcement.

Sports and outdoor market consumers “are fantastic early adopters of new technologies,” Rogan says. As a result, the supply chain is more open to innovation and quicker to adapt to new ideas, she says. Micro-encapsulation, new yarn structures, wearable electronics and nano-structured surfaces are just some of the options Rogan believes will help create the next generation of sports clothing.

The military and law enforcement markets are a bit more conservative, she says, partly due to restrictions and regulations. Those markets “have the ability to adopt the most advanced technologies, which is exciting for me as a developer,” she says, “but the supply base is much more averse to risk.”

While demand tends to drive and shape innovation, Rogan says, technologies migrate. Some products developed initially for military use have crossed over into recreation markets “where performance is advantageous rather than life-critical,” she says. Shear-thickening impact polymers, where there has been something of an explosion in improved formulations and new application formats, are one example. “They were less effective than required for improving ballistic protection but have fantastic results for lightweight trauma,” Rogan says.

“Novel combinations” of impact materials is of future interest for Rogan. “Only the first couple of layers in a Kevlar® vest actually ‘stop’ a bullet,” she says. “The remaining layers—and there are lots of them—are there to absorb the impact energy and reduce trauma injuries behind the armor.”

She also sees the convergence of mobile communications and wearable electronics as a possible route for adding assessment capabilities into already existing impact protection technology. “Assessing the number, severity and location of impacts can offer useful functions for some high-risk contact sports,” she says. For example, it could help manage risk on the field and develop better recovery programs for injured NFL players. In military and law enforcement, knowing the location and severity of a blast impact could indicate the risk of head or major organ trauma or highlight potential damage to armor plates.

Newer technologies offer future potential for amazing protection levels, according to Rogan. “But, if the cost is too high, or the supply too limited or the product life span too short, the products won’t ultimately make it to market.”

Jan M. Brenny is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.

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