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Protective products meet the challenge

August 1st, 2010 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Markets

An overview of the U.S. safety and protective products industry.

The U.S. Safety and Protective Products (SPP) market is a diverse and fragmented range of market segments: biological/nuclear, chemical, conductive/anti-static, ballistic/cut and slash, particulate, thermal, vacuum/high pressure, and visibility. Major applications for safety and protective products reside in key markets such as construction, filtration, medical/health care, military, personal protective equipment (PPE), especially in industrial and manufacturing settings, and sports and recreation.

The U.S. military textile and clothing market grew at about 26 percent in 2009, but growth is expected to decrease by 8.5 percent in 2010 due to significant troop reductions in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010. The market for firefighters and law enforcement grows at a steady 1–2 percent per year. Growth in the U.S. and Canadian PPE portion of the safety and protective market was down 1.2 percent in 2009, but is expected to grow at about 3.0 percent in 2011 as the economy improves.

While U.S. safety and protective fabric suppliers and manufacturers assess 2009’s sluggish performance, they can also look forward to significant improvements before the end of this year. Overall, sales in the 2009 safety and protective textile product market were flat, ranging from 0 to –1 percent, but 7–8 percent growth is expected in 2010.

The downward squeeze on sales and profit margins for U.S. safety and protective fabric suppliers and manufacturers in 2009 was due primarily to the significant downturn in the economy. The poor economy has been the driving force behind tight credit conditions and reduced budgets for state and municipal governments that fund key public markets.

Military and law enforcement

Fabrics in the safety and protective market often must perform well in demanding environments. For example, fabrics for military purposes must frequently withstand severe conditions. Among their uses are arctic and cold-weather clothing, tropical and extreme heat wear (as needed in Iraq, for example), rot-resistant material, webbing, inflated life vests, tent fabrics, safety belts, and parachute cloth and harnesses. Parachute cloth, for example, must meet exacting specifications, with air porosity a vital factor.

New fabrics are also being developed for protective clothing in space travel. In protective clothing, a subtle balance between protection and comfort is required.

Apart from the obvious military applications of the fabric bullet-resistant vest, the rise of terrorism from the 1960s led to the increased use of body amor by police and antiterrorist troops—as well as by terrorists and other armed criminals themselves. In the United States, the military has been the juggernaut driving the U.S. body armor market—especially with the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spending on military textiles and clothing is expected to reach $2.4 billion in 2010.

In 2009, the U.S. market for body armor showed:

  • > 200,000 vests per year used by U.S. law enforcement, security forces and federal agencies
  • > 375,000 vests per year used by U.S. military
  • > 5,675,000 square yards of fabric used for vests

The estimated mix of fabric construction methods employed in the body armor market is 75 percent wovens, 24 percent nonwovens (film composites or resin reinforcement composites) and 1 percent other materials.

Industrial safety

Following World War II, rapid industrialization prompted enactment of stringent safety laws and the use of industrial safety clothing, among other safety items, became mandatory. Partial or complete body protection items ranging from safety gloves and boot covers to coveralls and lab coats became an essential part of safety measures adopted by manufacturers.

Market factors such as economies of scale and the high technology costs of operating in the safety and protective clothing market create a competitive advantage for larger suppliers and manufacturers in this market. The degree of control of the supply chain by large companies is increasing. Upstream players such as DuPont™ extend their influence over the making of protective clothing using their fibers. Major fabric producers such as W.L. Gore & Associates (GORE-TEX®) are tightening their control over downstream producers through licensing agreements. The most commonly used fabrics are aramids (para and meta), polyester including high tenacity (HT) polyester, and polyamides (nylon).

Survey results

Results from an IFAI safety and protective supplier and manufacturer climate survey in May 2010 showed a very competitive environment for safety and protective suppliers and manufacturers in 2010 driven largely by reduced expenditures in state and municipal governments—especially for firefighters and police—a continued slow economy, low-priced imports, and higher raw material and energy prices.

Trends and their impact on the 2010 U.S. safety and protective textile market cited in the survey indicate increased competition for a shrinking market, which created excess capacity and more pressure on profit margins. Because of leaner budgets in government and private sectors, 2010 markets experienced restricted growth, reduced workforces and lower sales.

With tight credit restricting growth, it has been more difficult to get raw materials (which are also higher priced) necessitating doing more with fewer resources. This, too, impacted sales, profit margins and operating budgets, exacerbated by the importing of cheap, entry-level garments, which caused a 10 percent loss in sales for some U.S. businesses.

In response, companies partnered with their customers to develop new, innovative products to increase sales opportunities. Out of 13 possible investment choices presented in the survey, respondents cited three main investments they made in 2009 to help them fuel growth and overcome industry challenges. New product introductions led the way with a 16 percent share of investments made; marketing and sales promotions, improved manufacturing processes, and research and development or “product innovation” were cited as the second highest investments, each at 15 percent share.

Outlook

Results in 2009 from IFAI’s Safety and Protective Supplier and Manufacturer Climate Survey show:

  • > 39 percent reported unfavorable sales growth
  • > 39 percent reported favorable sales growth
  • > 61 percent reported they kept head count the same in 2009
  • > 25 percent reported decreasing head count

Meanwhile, 64 percent of respondents reported they expect favorable sales in 2010; only 11 percent reported they expect unfavorable sales in 2010. On a scale of 1-5 (5, a much better outlook; 3, an unchanged outlook), safety and protective suppliers and manufacturers reported a mean value of 3.9 for their sales outlook in 2010.

In summary, 2009 was a challenging period for safety and protective suppliers and manufacturers but they are confident that 2010 will bring them somewhat better sales and margin results for their business.

Jeff Rasmussen is IFAI’s director of market research.

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