Wrap music: Protective products are expanding into commercial markets for protection of persons and property.
By Janice Kleinschmidt
Standing among the ruins of a friend’s home, Dan Hirning thought, “There has to be a way to protect a home from burning in this day and age.”
The 2003 Cedar Fire in Southern California destroyed 2,232 homes and damaged another 53. Determined to provide homeowners with protection against these catastrophes, Hirning began researching aluminum—the material used for shelters by firefighters in the historic 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires. In 2006, as president of Firezat Inc. in San Diego, Calif., he began providing fire shields to federal agencies. Today, his company sells reusable house wraps made with a fiberglass substrate, high-temperature adhesive, aluminum laminate and Kevlar® thread.
“There are several studies being conducted on structure wraps as a fire-mitigation strategy,” Hirning says. “The fire service can’t drop water on a structure from an aircraft; it will punch holes in buildings. They’re trying to find other ways and trying to shift the onus of protecting the structure to the homeowner. Their budget is not enough to protect all homes. The shift is particularly going to the homeowner in the wildland-urban interface.”
With increasing incidences of wildfires, hurricanes, hazardous chemical accidents and terrorism, the general public is becoming more aware of a need for personal protective products. Manufacturers that have been safeguarding military and public service personnel are taking notice.
“We are doing the baseline testing that needs to be done to go after [consumer] markets,” says David O’Keefe, president and CEO of Advanced Fabric Technologies LLC (AFT). The Houston-based company makes a blast-mitigation fabric called Xtegra™ in two forms: one of ballistic nylon and Spectra®-wrapped polyester monofilament, and another of Kevlar and Hytrel® (a DuPont elastomer) wrapped with large-denier Kevlar.
In addition to the obvious military application, Xtegra is being marketed to mining companies to protect workers and mining equipment. Although AFT has not pursued the personal consumer market (“That will be something that we target very soon,” O’Keefe says), the company has touted Xtegra’s potential for protection against hurricanes.
“Down here in Houston, they put plywood up to cover the windows. You could put Xtegra up, but I am not real sure people will do that,” O’Keefe acknowledges. But, he notes, “you could theoretically make a safe room out of it and have added protection in a home.” Although Xtegra was originally designed for the blast arena, AFT has identified medical applications such as sutures and tissue grafts, as well as industrial and aerospace applications.
“Every application will not necessarily have the same ingredients,” O’Keefe says. “It’s so versatile that, depending on what you are trying to protect yourself from, we can create that formula. I don’t know that we will ever be as cheap as plywood, but we will have better operative solutions that can handle a multilevel threat issue.”
We all expect airlines to safeguard us when we take to the skies. Since early this century, AmSafe Inc. has provided commercial carriers with seatbelt airbags. About five years ago, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based company entered the general aviation market.
Joe Smith, aviation seatbelt airbag general manager, estimates that there are roughly a quarter-million general aviation planes being flown—many of them manufactured when safety features were less prominent.
“We looked at [general aviation] as an opportunity to increase survivability,” Smith says. “We do some advertising at service centers and in trade publications and [aircraft] owner magazines.”
The airbags are made with nylon and the seatbelts with polyester or nylon webbing, but AmSafe also works with suppliers provided by clients for airbag covers. “A lot of commercial carriers are very particular of the colors, so they select their own leather,” Smith says. “We have gotten raw cowhide from New Zealand.”
The main difference between the commercial and general aviation products, however, is crashworthiness. The rating requirement is lower for the former, because the structure of a large plane absorbs more energy. Commercial planes must withstand a 16 g-force impact; general aviation planes must withstand a 26G impact for the pilot and co-pilot and a 21G impact for passengers. That’s why a general aviation seatbelt is a three-point restraint, as in an automobile.
These days, about 80 percent of new single-engine general aircraft come equipped with AmSafe’s seatbelt airbag as standard equipment for the pilot and co-pilot (optional for passenger seats).
“You can’t buy a car without an airbag,” Smith says. “We are hopeful that airbags will be across the board on the general aviation side.”
Reality TV: watch it!
Even television programs have brought consumer attention to some personal protective products. In February 2008, Discovery Channel’s “Smash Lab” contacted Chapman Innovations of Salt Lake City, Utah, to evaluate the feasibility of creating a fireproof tarp out of the company’s CarbonX® fabric that could be deployed over a house in the event of a forest fire.
“The deployment system was flawed, but the tarp proved feasible; and we have been contacted by several entities,” says Chapman CEO Tyler Thatcher. “This demonstration of CarbonX’s protective properties resulted in several inquiries by interested organizations and individuals. The primary market for a tarp such as this is the vacation homeowner—someone who likely has a home in a mountainous environment that may not be occupied all the time. But on a smaller scale, several people have contacted us for propane tank covers after seeing or hearing about the ‘Smash Lab’ program.”
Although the company’s largest market is industrial safety for companies whose employees work with molten metals, Chapman now sells CarbonX fabric—a patented blend of oxidized polyacrylonitrile and aramid fibers—to individuals for their customized needs. “We are contacted all the time by homeowners and inventors that are exploring applications for our fabric,” Thatcher says. “One gentleman came into our office who built a large garage/workshop and wanted to install a wood-burning stove; he bought 20 to 30 yards of our fabric. Other tradespeople and welders buy fabric from us on a regular basis to protect themselves and their equipment from molten splatter or sparks.”
Chapman also sells CarbonX fabric to motor-sports companies for use in racing suits, gloves and helmet liners.
It was The Weather Channel that increased traffic on the website of a Norfolk, Va.-based company from a few hundred hits in January to 12,000 hits in February. First aired Jan. 26 and repeated over the next six to eight weeks, “Weather Proof” showed a Hollywood stuntman running through a burning building in Defender LLC’s Xscape Safe™ fire suit and smoke hood.
“People that will buy this are people in high-rise buildings. They’ve bought quite a bit,” says Defender CEO Kennis Sigmon, who has added four distributors since the television coverage.
Sigmon works with Gentex Corp. of Simpson, Pa., which applies aluminum on a variety of fabrics, depending on their end use. “I talk to steel mills all the time, showing them what our products can do,” says Lou Ott, sales manager for protective textiles. “We are always looking to develop something new that is more efficient, more protective, lighter weight, more flexible.”
While the Xscape Safe suit is designed for the individual consumer market, its lightweight construction and protection against fire and smoke “could be an area of good growth,” Ott says. Defender sells both adult- and child-size versions that include a training CD, hand-crank LED light and locator clicker. Sigmon envisions a day when he’s able to bring down the price point and sell the suit at a store such as Walmart. “My vision is that everyone could potentially use one,” he says.
Of the inquiries Chapman gets, two in 10 are from individuals looking for customized solutions.
“As people become more aware of the potential hazards they may be exposed to,” Thatcher says, “they look to enhance their personal protection and educate themselves on their options in the market.”