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Engineered fabrics

Advanced Textiles, Business, Feature | January 1, 2012 | By:

Suppliers of performance fabrics respond to wide-ranging inventory demands and customer needs.

There are as many different “performance” fabrics as there are needs in the marketplace. To fulfill those needs as quickly and completely as possible, suppliers collaborate with customers and capitalize on strengths. Performance fabric suppliers range from those that offer standard programs, with a set menu of fabrics and treatments, to those that have extensive R & D labs and provide specialized customization. Many suppliers offer both services at some level, depending upon customer demand.

How those suppliers operate—the amount of available inventory, turnaround times, required minimum orders—also tends to vary.

Engineered Polymer Technologies, Hillside, N.J., a division of Ronald Mark Associates Inc., offers customized polymer/fabric combinations in weights and thicknesses to meet performance criteria for the military, as well as for medical, environmental and construction markets. “The bread and butter of our business is design-to-ship,” explains Ed Silva, vice president of sales and marketing. The company has an extensive R & D department and works with customers who need specialized items such as geomembranes and fabrics with performance criteria, such as the ability to resist various hydrocarbons, UV degradation and extreme low temperatures.

Delivering on these high-tech and very specific requests can require extensive investments in time and lab resources, so qualifying customers up front is key, Silva says. Gaining as much product- and application-related information is imperative because there are so many options, he adds. “There are multiple avenues in the product-development cycle. You have to be able to decide on the best route to get you to your destination.”

That’s one reason Silva believes that the clearer both parties are from the start, the better the return on investment for everyone. “I’m a big proponent of customer visits,” he says “You have to do your due diligence.”

His company sources raw materials globally, but inventory fluctuates. “If we’re in business with you, what you need is on our shelves,” he says. However, as needs get more specific, stocking every substrate and chemical isn’t possible. The trade-off can be turnaround time, which varies from situation to situation, but customers seem to understand, he notes.

Demand and supply

MarChem CFI, a New Haven, Mo.-based textile subsidiary of Dash Multi-Corp., has two separate textile operations—a standard one that provides marine, awning and other outdoor fabrics, and a custom operation, according to Zach Kissel, subsidiary operations manager. The customized unit takes the standard products, as well as others, and customizes them for use in the military, marine, agriculture and consumer end-user markets.

Raw materials come from the same global supply chain for both types of orders. However, standard program items typically remain in stock, but “we don’t keep custom components on the shelf,” Kissel says. “They’d be virtually unlimited.”

Greige goods need the longest lead time and pose the biggest problem for delivering time-sensitive orders, Kissel explains. “It is what it is,” he says.

“If a customer went to our competitors, they’d face the same problem. It’s just part of the supply chain, built into the process.”

MarChem has a full staff of chemists and technicians who advise customers on meeting specific fabric performance goals. Flame retardancy and water resistance are the most requested, Kissel says. The company has just added an advanced coating line that can handle an expanded range of fabrics and web-based products for a wide list of final applications, as well as a second laminating line that can combine multiple layers of material without the need to be in web form.

Third-party testing is also available, Kissel says, which helps assure customers that performance fabrics won’t break down over time. For instance, treatments for flame retardancy can lose effectiveness after months of rain and UV exposure, but advanced weathering tests help prove to customers that it won’t happen, Kissel says.

Dealing with inventory

Fabric suppliers aren’t the only ones that have to deal with inadequate inventory space—so do the end-product manufacturers. Add minimum order requirements to the mix, and it becomes a double whammy for a small operation needing particular materials.

Eventually, customers might be able to use a 1,500-yard dye lot “but they just don’t have the space or the cash flow,” says Amy Hammond, president and co-owner (with husband, Joe) of MMI Textiles in Rocky River, Ohio, and a new member of IFAI’s board of directors. “We’ve decided to be creative and make things easier on our customers.” Her company is blessed with additional space, so she offers it to smaller end-use operations for inventory storage. “Most customers are very appreciative of the approach,” Hammond says. “We’ll go 90 days, or we might even go six months if we’re familiar with the customer and we’re not worried about getting stuck wtih the inventory.”

MMI began business as a dye and finishing house, but now operates as a fabric converter for a customer base of industrial sewing operations, many of which are military- and government-related. The company offers a standard menu of treatment and coating options on wovens, cottons, nylon and polyester.

Like many suppliers today, MMI collaborates with customers to determine which fabric/formula combinations will achieve performance criteria such as mildew resistance or antibacterial and antistatic properties. “We have a small lab on-site, but we do more in-depth testing at third-party testing facilities,” Hammond says.

MMI works with nearly 100 manufacturers on several continents, as well as finishing houses around the U.S., to source the necessary raw substrates and formulas.

“Customers know you’re working on their requirements,” Hammond says, “but it can be a long process. After talking to them for 30 minutes, we may say, ‘why are you using that fabric? Use this. It’s readily available, you’ll get a better price, and it works better in that application.’” Turnaround time can range anywhere from three to 12 weeks, she adds.

Back in the U.S.A.

Hammond and other fabric customizers have seen increased interest in sourcing from domestic suppliers.

Some performance fabric suppliers are not only seeing it, they’re participating in it. More than half of all the fabric processed at Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc., with divisions in Aurora, Ill., and Travelers Rest, S.C., is woven in the United States, says Jeff Leagon, vice president of business development. “Many people are surprised to learn that,” he adds.

The company specializes in cotton, polyester and poly/cotton blended goods but works with fabrics made of other fibers also. Treatment capabilities and a full range of finishes, from acrylic and PVC coating and fire retardants, allow the company to “take fabric from loom-state to ready for cut-and-sew,” Leagon explains. “As far as which performance criteria are most popular, I’d say it’s a toss-up between FR and some type of moisture management treatment.”

Customers have driven the fabric customization end of the business. The majority of development projects underway at any given time were started by a “customer with a specific application in mind,” Leagon says. “Even within the more mature markets we sell to, the products tend to be slightly different because customers all have different performance requirements or processing capabilities on their end.”

Aurora tries to stay flexible with regard to minimum order amounts, “especially when developing new opportunities,” Leagon says. “Generally, though, it’s not practical to do less than 3,000 yards or so.”

The company is improving capabilities so smaller dye lots can be tied together for the required finishing steps, and is paying closer attention to inventory levels of both finished goods and raw materials than in the past. The idea is to “minimize inventory and still meet delivery requirements,” Leagon says.

Custom or proprietary

TSG Finishing LLC, headquartered in North Wales, Pa., offers a menu of standard finishes, but “we’re also able to customize finishes for customers in-house,” says Bud Styles, director of sales. Lab facilities conduct testing to determine how to best meet customer needs. Customers also send their own proprietary chemical formulations to TSG, and “as long as they’re safe, we’ll apply them,” Styles says.

Standard finishes include stain repellents, flame retardants, moisture barriers and treatments for antimicrobial, antistatic and antibacterial properties, as well as mechanical finishing such as needle punching, calendering, pre-shrinking, embossing and more. TSG also has a facility dedicated to processing fiberglass for the commercial construction industry, according to Styles.

Standard finishes differ from custom in more than one way. When customers want a standard finish that works on all fabrics, for instance a stain repellent that works on every fabric you bring in, “there’s virtually no minimum if it’s an existing process,” Styles says. “We’ll do five to 10 yards at a time, but you pay a premium.” Even on specialized products, the company tries to avoid hard-and-fast rules. “Our goal is to make sure customers have what they need,” Styles says, but the budget drives the transaction. “I can develop something, but I need to know their budget,” Styles says. “I don’t want to develop it if it’s going to cost two or three times as much as the budget will support.”

Jan Brenny is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, Minn.

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