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High performance drives growth in industrial applications

Advanced Textiles, Feature, Markets | April 1, 2012 | By:

Expanded product lines and new performance requirements drive growth in industrial applications.

Industry changes have prompted manufacturers of end products used in industrial applications to expand into new markets and diversify their product lines. With growing demands to meet new performance requirements in health, safety and environmental protection—at affordable prices—end product manufacturers (EPMs) responded with improved offerings, cost-effective solutions for their customers and diligent quality control.

High performance priorities

Southern Weaving Co. in Greenville, S.C., is reporting a third year of double-digit growth for its performance woven products, which include nylon/polyester webbing for cargo restraints and tie-downs, lifting slings, fall protection and safety harnesses. Its products are heavily tied to the construction and transportation sectors, but there is also growth in bridge and road construction, mining, oil and gas exploration, and windmill energy markets, says Richard Guarnaccia, vice president of sales and marketing. New performance requirements for fire retardancy, abrasion resistance and heat resistance are driving changes in the fabrics used in most industrial settings.

“Our products are all about strength and abrasion resistance for use in environments where you’re either moving equipment, pulling, lifting or tying something down. Lately we have been introducing products which use some of the more sophisticated aramids and higher tech yarns like Technora®, Vectran® and Dyneema® because they have interesting properties that can give our products value-added characteristics of high temperature or high strength. We’re making one now for the aerospace industry: a web that is used in the construction of inflatable space modules that will ultimately house astronauts.”

Southern Weaving acquired a coatings company with plans to develop coated products with value-added features, such as more water repellency, comfort and UV protection that will allow expansion into additional markets. Products that utilize a new woven rope technology, which has many advantages over steel cable, provides another promising market. Southern Weaving is a pioneer in launching this advancement, which is new to North America.

Raising the bar

Auburn Manufacturing Inc. in Mechanic Falls, Maine, makes high-performance coated textiles and composite fabrics for extreme temperature applications and insulation markets. Owner and CEO Kathy Leonard says new requirements for these products are raising the bar on safety and performance, and help U.S. manufacturers compete against the many imports coming in directly or through American companies that claim to be U.S. made, but are substandard and even dangerous.

“As time goes on, the workplace has become more sophisticated and demanding in discerning high temp challenges; they want more use out of their product,” Leonard says. “It might be that there are chemicals present that can affect performance, or that fabric barriers need to be stronger or more fire retardant.”

In the last decade, new performance standards were developed by FM Approvals, a division of insurer FM Global, to test welding fabrics for welding safety. Auburn was the first to have 17 of its fabrics tested and approved to this first-ever performance-based standard for welding fabrics; three more are in testing now.

“It’s made a huge difference in the marketplace,” says Leonard. “We knew it would because of all the confusion about the performance of such products, now that the standard has been written into a national fire protection standard (NFPA 51B), and the industry is embracing it. In the past year, it has really taken hold, and because of our broad range of product, we’re seeing demand accelerate.”

The insulation market is also moving in the direction of performance-based standards versus mechanical specifications, which promises to open up new opportunities to offer innovative energy-saving solutions and worker safety options in buildings and facilities.

Demand for value

AmCraft Manufacturing Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., which specializes in sewn and welded industrial fabrics, is experiencing tighter margins as competitors split the “pie” into more pieces, and that is putting downward pressure on prices. But customers still want the best value and quality for the dollar, and that is causing customers to question offshore brands.

“We see more people come to us and want to bring something back from China and want to know if it’s economically feasible, so I think manufacturing is going to grow,” says Mark Deutsch, AmCraft president. “I’m hearing it from other people too.”

Deutsch believes that with growth in manufacturing, fabric can fulfill a lot of new requirements for cost efficiencies, increased performance and occupational health and safety. The acoustic panel market is likely to grow in manufacturing areas that require noise control. Fabrics can also fulfill the need to reduce weight and costs, which is a hot issue in the auto industry.

Transportation is going to change as costs and methods are increasingly scrutinized, he says. For example, shipping containers that used to be made of heavy metal are now made with corrugated plastic to reduce weight and cost. AmCraft is also making fabric shock absorber covers for large trucks and heavy mining equipment that were once made of more expensive injection-molded silicone rubber.

AmCraft’s largest market is industrial curtains, but it also has a solid business with government contracts and has tapped into new markets for RF-welded products.

“I think there is going to be more of a need for the verification of physical properties and specifications of materials, but that may be driven by the new products we’re pushing our way into, such as the acoustic panels. Additionally, we are becoming more interested in providing solutions for green products. As more materials become available, our manufacturing processes are being modified to manufacture products for companies that are moving in that direction,” says Deutsch.

Air filtration advances

Florida-based American Fabric Filter Co. makes a wide range of air filtration and liquid filtration products for air quality and job safety, particularly in settings where combustible dust generated from flour, grain or wood is an explosion hazard. Some of its core industries, like woodworking and bakery, have gone overseas or consolidated, forcing the company to diversify its product line and focus on new markets. The company is pursuing applications where fabric can provide a more cost-effective solution, such as bulk bags, fabric hoppers and silos that used to be made of steel. In addition, more strident NFPA standards and OSHA regulations have advanced the company’s development of new products that provide technical solutions to meet the performance requirements.

“We’re definitely seeing some changes in the materials used and new coatings, especially in cake release—cake dust that builds up and releases on its own instead of embedding. Teflon® coating on a cellulose media is a neat way to do it. That’s what the future is going to be,” says sales manager Tim Robinson.

New standards for combustible dust, already being adopted by companies large and small, will be a game changer and increase awareness and demand for HEPA filtration. The most significant new development will be the ability to add a coating to a basic media and supercharge its performance, giving it HEPA filtration quality or extending its life, notes Robinson.

“The HEPA media is dominated in the cartridge filter or pleated filter industry, usually relying on nonwoven media, polyester and cellulose. As more materials become available and as our capabilities change, we’ll work to find more innovative ways to use those fabrics to make a better mousetrap,” he says. “We’re really excited to see what starts coming out of nanotechnologies. We’ve been working with some of our suppliers on products that we hope to bring to market in the next couple of years.”

An easier sell

For Soper’s Engineered Fabric Solutions in Hamilton, Ont., Canada, automotive, recreational boat building and general manufacturing have leveled off and aerospace remains cyclical. But the company is seeing an uptick in companies like Caterpillar that want to reinvest in North America, and new opportunities in the agriculture, pharmaceutical and food packaging markets, says U.S. sales manager Ted Portz.

Sopers primarily manufactures softwall partitions for traditional manufacturing facilities. It has been developing product line extensions and modifying existing products to meet the growing demand for more sophisticated and automated systems, but also to meet tighter regulations and performance specifications that have to do with quality control, energy costs, occupational health and safety, as well as other code guidelines. The single biggest issue it faces as a small-to-medium-sized custom manufacturer is finding fabric suppliers that are also focused on developing products to meet the same specifications in the right quantities, says Portz.

“It seems to me that there is room in the market for short-run fabric companies to do custom runs of specialty material. The nature of our business is that we design an enclosure for a customer today and we might not ever make the same enclosure again. The specs that our customers look for vary, and, as a result, we have a hard time finding products that meet the new specs as we are not coming to the table with large enough volumes,” he says.

“We try to find a supplier that is already manufacturing at the volume needed to economically make a product and piggyback on that so we can buy it in a smaller quantity. As our list of new specifications grows, we’re finding it more and more difficult. It would be great if there were more small suppliers, even if it’s at a premium price. Price is often not an issue.”

On the bright side, there is a growing awareness of the integrity industrial and architectural fabrics offer as building materials inside plant facilities. Fabric systems can provide the increased flexibility that most companies require as they move from traditional static to more dynamic facilities, says Portz. It is not as tough a sell as it used to be when people were reluctant to look at a fabric wa

“We’re seeing enough growth and interest in customers looking for a greener footprint, higher quality, increased specs and need for custom design,” he says. “All of those things play into who we want to be as a company.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer located in Fridley, Minn.

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