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Industrial “diamonds” drive market growth

November 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Technical

Technology breakthroughs drive growth areas in industrial applications and may provide manufacturers with their “diamonds in the rough.”

With the nation’s manufacturing industries still feeling the effects of a tentative economy, companies that supply state-of-the-art specialty fabrics products are working hard to diversify their wares and re-envision their product lines to stay relevant in the market. By relying more on Internet business, bundling products, pursuing custom orders, and creating new products to meet performance requirements and industry specifications, companies are taking a comprehensive approach to move forward.

Seeking opportunity

When local auto manufacturing plants began to close, Garry Truax, plant manager with the TD Industrial Coverings Inc. (TDIC) management team in Sterling Heights, Mich., realized the company needed to branch out. TDIC makes covers for many types of equipment, including medical equipment that can be laundered or made with materials that can be wiped down with disinfectant; however, paint covers designed to protect robotic sprayers on an assembly line represented the largest portion of their business. Given the difficulties the auto market has experienced, the team at TDIC was prompted to consider new opportunities.

“We’re all worried about how the automakers are rebounding,” Truax says. “As it relates to the usage of our products we never know what is going to happen within the next quarter, let alone the next year. I am always looking for that ‘diamond in the rough’ that is going to change the industry, but currently there is nothing out there in our sights that looks to be a game changer. Lately, we have been developing a line of high-end designer denim that will be introduced this fall under the name Motor City Denim designed by Joe Ferris. Diversification is our best bet.”

Federal-Mogul Corp., based in Southfield, Mich., may have that diamond in the rough, developing what is believed to be the world’s first polyethylene terephthalate yarn that meets halogen-free, flame-retardant, and non flaming drip requirements.

“We have been working to scale up the commercial process so the end user has a cost-effective, nontoxic product that will meet their needs,” says Phil Marks, global product development manager for the Systems Protection Division of Federal-Mogul. Marks says the yarn meets many of the processing and functional requirements for textiles used in interior vehicle trim and in wiring harness insulation, which have applications in vehicles for land, water and air. “We expect that this could very well revolutionize many industries and markets,” he says. “We’ve learned that there has been a lot of interest in this product.”

Setting the standard

Companies that manufacture their products in the same way and sell to the same customers are inventing attractive packages to offer the end user and distributors greater value at an affordable price. Dean Wilson, CEO of Wilson Industries, Pomona, Calif., says innovation is hard to come by with the push for certification standards in welding curtains and blankets. There is no true U.S. standard for welding curtains, Wilson says, which has forced the industry to be self-regulating. For welding blankets, the ANSI/FM4950 standard is confusing to the end user, and that can lead to compliance issues.

The company makes welding pads, curtains and blankets, and laser safety products. “Of course all of our fabrics have to be fire retardant and meet NFPA-701 standards. Our laser barriers meet updated ANSI 136 specifications,” he says. “Our laser barriers have gone from protecting very robust direct laser beams in the 1990s to lower-powered indirect beams today.”

There hasn’t been a big change in welding curtain and blanket fabrics over the last five to 10 years, but Wilson is seeing an uptick in carbon fiber blankets being used in the aftermarket auto repair shop. Room partitions and station dividers are still being utilized as a way to create tighter work environments and increase productivity in the shop by eliminating noise and potential hazards generated by co-workers.

“The automobile paint and body repair shop business has picked up quite a bit as these companies are learning that the curtains are paid for in increased productivity,” he says. The dividers are used to reconfigure shops to make extra work bays so more repairs can be accomplished at one time.

New technology, new products

As the new trends in fabric applications evolve, manufacturers feel that more and more companies will continue to look for high performance textiles at a reasonable price. Tony Galang with Forest City Industrial Sewing in Cleveland, Ohio, says the majority of his business comes from heavy manufacturing firms requesting curtains, bellows and insulated covers that must meet high temperature requirements. The most significant change in the fabrics he uses is in the weave. “High temperature fabrics are woven better and are easier to fabricate than they were five or 10 years go,” Galang says. “They used to be a mess to work with, but now it’s a lot easier because they are woven better.”

Everyone is on the lookout for improved, high-performance products that meet the needs of the end user. From F5 science (producing a combination of high-balanced elasticity and compression) to smart fabrics employing nanotechnology, as well as lightweight products designed to get heavy jobs done, the weight of the fabric is a hot topic right now, according to Mark Deutsch, owner of AmCraft Manufacturing Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill. As a producer of heavy fabric and vinyl recreation products, such as windscreens, curtains, military gear and PCA hoses, he knows customers want products (aircraft hoses, for example) that are high performance, easy to work with and as light as possible.

Inclement weather also has a bearing on the weight of the fabric, which means the lighter and more pliable his company can make the hoses, the happier the workforce is. “On-the-job injuries could have a lot to do with the trend,” Deutsch says. “People want to be able to get these items put away as easily as possible and that doesn’t work when the fabric is heavy or heavily insulated. Fabrics have to be able to take the pressure, but they have to be easy to work with too.”

Inclement weather also has a bearing on the weight of the fabric, which means the lighter and more pliable his company can make the hoses, the happier the workforce is. “On-the-job injuries could have a lot to do with the trend,” Deutsch says. “People want to be able to get these items put away as easily as possible and that doesn’t work when the fabric is heavy or heavily insulated. Fabrics have to be able to take the pressure, but they have to be easy to work with too.”

Nanotechnology and smart fabrics are revolutionizing coatings and fabric chemistry throughout the industry, Wilson notes. Some companies have implemented this technology—for example, manufacturing apparel with integrated sensors that can monitor vital signs, or military apparel that functions as personal protective equipment. As advanced textiles become more economical, it will allow additional manufacturers to create better products for their customers in an increasing variety of applications.

“Nanotechnology and smart fabrics are going to create a paradigm shift in the safety fabric industry,” he says.

Julie Young is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Ind.

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