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Fabric-based safety solutions offer opportunities in sports and recreation

Advanced Textiles, Feature | July 1, 2010 | By:

Enthusiasts at all levels can focus on their sport with products that assure a safe environment for competition or recreation.

In athletic and recreational activities, safety is always an important factor—whether that’s landing properly on a pole-vaulting pit or providing impact protection at the end of a snow tubing hill. Despite the economic downturn, sports and amusement markets still present multiple opportunities for end-product manufacturers (EPMs) to craft fabric-based safety solutions to expand their business in these markets. With the proper understanding of applications, technical know-how and the industry’s needs and regulations, EPMs can expand their offerings, carve out a product niche or even create innovative products to diversifying their offerings.

Fielding opportunities

One market that consistently requires safety-related products is athletics, from grade school to the professional level. For instance, Gilman Gear of Gilman, Conn., specializes in the manufacture of football practice equipment, including blocking and tackling sleds, dummies, shields and sideline markers, as well as goalpost pads, which are designed to lessen impact should a player run into a post. The company’s goalpost pad has a 6-inch-thick foam padding all the way around the post, covered with an 18-oz. vinyl-coated polyester that strengthens the product by providing a “rugged, durable cover that stands up to the extremes of temperature and prevents moisture penetration,” explains president Neil Gilman.

Gilman Gear also has a foam molding operation that precisely pours molded urethane foam and uses materials such as an 18-oz. vinyl-coated nylon, 16-oz. neoprene, Lycra® and nylon oxford cloth, and polyester and nylon webbing to create its products.

Hadar Athletic of Humboldt, Iowa, also manufactures institutional sporting goods, primarily for the elementary through high school (K-12) market. The company’s most popular product line is football sleds and tackling dummies, followed closely by gymnastic mats. The manufacturer touts its tagline, “Made for Coaches by Coaches,” in marketing its products used for safety. “When you’ve coached, you know what it feels like to arrive on the first day of practice to find equipment that has been damaged or is missing,” says Joe Hadar, R & D director. “And when a coach explains a need for a new or special product, we’re familiar with the language.”

Personal knowledge of a sporting activity also has been beneficial to Amsterdam, N.Y.-based Saratoga Horseworks Ltd., which, in addition to manufacturing its own line of products for the equestrian industry, contract produces safety equipment for scuba divers. President Michael Libertucci, a diver for more than 30 years, has used his experiences to create two distinctive safety-related products for divers, in addition to insulated jumpsuits. Buoyancy compensators make divers naturally buoyant in the water and can float them at the surface until they get to shore or climb up the boat’s ladder. The other product, a surface marker buoy, is an inflatable tube that is sent up on a line for use as a signaling device if divers are in distress or separated from the boat.

Winter sports represent another sector where impact protection is of the utmost importance. Idaho Sewing for Sports Inc. in Grangeville, Idaho, specializes in developing post and tower pads for ski resorts; the company also was the sole padding provider for the 2002 Winter Olympics, bringing protection to the slopes and speed skating tracks. Idaho Sewing’s pads feature high-density open cell foam surrounded by a heavy-duty vinyl. Additionally, the company recently started representing a new product called Short StopZ™ for Sans Gear NZ, which markets and develops safety-impact applications for the athletic and adventure markets. Made with a series of tubes filled with air and covered in vinyl (though not considered an inflatable), Short StopZ sits at the end of a tubing hill and absorbs, rather than reflects, virtually all of an impact’s kinetic energy. (See “‘Adventuretainment’ company jumps into sports market” for more information.)

Show your skills

Manufacturing safety applications for the athletic, amusement and adventure markets often requires technical expertise, along with an understanding of materials and regulations. The diving safety equipment that Saratoga Horseworks manufacturers, for example, needs to meet certain requirements. The buoyancy compensation devices are typically made using ballistic nylon as the outer bag that surrounds a welded urethane bladder. For the surface marker buoy, Saratoga employs a polyester-based fabric laminated with polyurethane, producing the inflatable tubes in ANSI-certified orange or yellow for high visibility. “We also just started to use a highly abrasion-resistant material called SuperFabric© [from HDM Inc.] on the outside of our buoyancy compensators for cave divers because they take a lot of abuse from the stone walls,” Libertucci says.

EPMs also need to be aware of regulations when applicable. “News safety requirements [from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSH)] change continuously in the athletic business for both finished products and materials used in the manufacturing of padding,” says Brian Hegner of OTA Co. Inc. in Oshkosh, Wis., which produces high-jump and pole-vault pits, protective padding, wall panels, football padding and stage mats. “Staying on top of these changes is an important part in manufacturing safety-type products.”

Gunther Williams, CEO of Idaho Sewing for Sports—which also makes pole-vault and high-jump landing pits—adds that ASTM standards exist for these applications in terms of size and the way the foam crushes. But in the skiing industry, one of Idaho Sewing’s specialties, there is no agency or governing body that oversees or sets standards.

In addition, athletic equipment manufacturers that do work for schools are addressing a new twist on safety issues. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) implemented lead content restrictions in the fall of 2008 after the fallout from lead found in children’s toys during Christmas of 2006. “The SGMA [Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association] worked with us in making sure our products that could be used by children meet the standards,” Hadar adds.

Keeping abreast of new materials and industry changes is another factor in the creation of safety sporting equipment. Hadar says that his company’s product line has stayed relatively consistent, but the materials have changed over the years to incorporate new high-tech vinyls, nylons and plastics. Gilman Gear, meanwhile, has replaced metal zippers with Delrin® zippers to make them stronger and longer lasting.

Branching out

As with many industries, those who manufacture and supply safety-related products to the athletic and recreation markets have experienced a downturn in business. Most companies have tightened their belts or just don’t have access to lending to pay for new products. Even industries that are seemingly insulated from economic turmoil are causing challenges for EPMs. “The recession has proved the old adage ‘the school business is recession proof’ is pretty much false,” says Hadar. “The question is still out there: What will state budget cuts do to school budgets? A common conceit in our traditionally conservative industry is that football revenues are independent of budget cuts. We are already seeing the fallout from companies with business plans making that claim.”

Creating different products and services has been a popular way to stay ahead of the recession. That could mean trying to break into other sports, becoming a contract manufacturer or researching—and fulfilling—a need. “We realized that to continue to improve our technology and manufacturing environment, we needed to diversify into other markets,” Libertucci says. “Sewing machines are very versatile. You can do almost anything with them as far as making a product is concerned.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Pine City, Minn.

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