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Fabric protection for safer sports

Advanced Textiles, Features | May 1, 2012 | By:

Injury-reducing products in the sports and recreation market are becoming lighter, thinner, less cumbersome and more customized.

Changes in the world of impact protection are fueled by all segments of the marketplace, from material producers and technology developers to end-product manufacturers and consumers. Sadly, sports and recreation injuries factor prominently into the scenario. Faster-higher-harder-stronger seems to be the mantra for participants at all levels, and that can push players beyond their limits—which can cause problems.

The television news programs are full of concerns about injuries to players from grade school level to professional sports teams. Justin Morneau, first baseman for the Minnesota Twins, was hit in the head while sliding into second base at Toronto on July 7, 2010, and missed most of the rest of that season while recovering. The symptoms resurfaced in 2011. He hit .227 with four home runs and 30 RBIs in 69 games, and needed four operations—on his neck, wrist, foot and knee.

Changes in fabric technologies and product design are accelerating to meet the needs of sports and recreation enthusiasts of all ages. Effectiveness and wearability are key, but oddly enough, style is also high on the list for consumers.

How does it look?

For competitive athletes to buy and wear injury protection, even spot protection, the gear has to be comfortable and can’t hinder play.

For many years, soccer players have used their heads to drive the ball, but only recently have officials recognized the sport’s concussion potential.

“There’s better acceptance today of the need to be proactive than to treat head injuries after the fact,” says Dr. C.J. Abraham, inventor of the ForceField FF Headband. Still, players won’t wear helmets, he says. To help prevent soccer-related head injuries, Abraham incorporated an impact-absorbing polymer with memory into a cotton/spandex headband. “We wanted it to look like a sweatband,” he says. An internal airflow system works with the outer material to wick perspiration.

The ForceField FF Headband was tested and approved by every soccer organization in the U.S., Abraham says. It also received the CE II mark in Europe to be designated officially as “protective headgear,” and won The Textile Institute’s 2011 New Materials Award, recognizing “outstanding advances in technical textiles and their applications.” These industry accreditations and approvals can help foster credibility for an impact protection product and encourage athletes to use it.

The headband’s use is expanding into other sports and markets, something Abraham didn’t originally foresee. It’s being worn by fall-prone adults in nursing homes, hikers, children on playgrounds and kids learning to walk. “Coaches are reporting that—for the first time—their players have no down time due to head injuries,” Abraham says.

Specific sports, specific protection

Impact protection has an even better chance of preventing injuries as it’s “customized to each sport’s need,” says Jay Turkbas, vice president of product development for Plymouth, Minn.-based Shock Doctor® Inc. “That means more individualized products, which may create more SKUs [Stock Keeping Units], as well as increased final cost. However, performance is worth paying for, for many athletes.”

As sports at all levels become more competitive, protection is even more essential, according to Turkbas. Shock Doctor manufactures high-end mouth guards, as well as other spot-protection products using new constructions, foams and profiles. The trend is toward less bulk but equal or greater pinpointed protection on key parts of the body. To achieve that, the end-product manufacturer works with fabrics that are “as light as possible, while still maintaining strength, compression as needed and comfort,” Turkbas says. Construction and the finishing process also remain important for moisture transpiration and anti-odor properties.

ShockSkin™, the company’s newest technology, seals breathable foam pads into fabric compartments made of poly or nylon and spandex blends of varying percentages. “I think innovation on the design side is the change agent,” Turkbas says of the impact protection market. Successful companies will be the ones that research athletes’ needs to find solutions that the athletes themselves didn’t know could be achieved.

Rules of the game

League rule changes at various levels can also drive market change, generating new opportunities for impact protection products. For instance, when aluminum and composite bats were introduced into youth baseball, the resulting “trampoline effect” changed the game, says Michael Green, chief executive officer of East Brunswick, N.J.-based SportsGuard LLC. When hit with an aluminum and composite bat, the ball comes off the bat at a higher speed than off a wooden bat. Some young players—especially pitchers, because of their proximity to the batter—didn’t have the reflexes to react in time. A few of the resulting injuries were severe, prompting concerned parents and coaches to start the company. “We wanted to build a better mouse trap,” Green says.

HeadGuard™, for head protection, and StealthGuard™, for chest protection, are made of varying densities of force-dampening material webbed together with Cool-Plus™ fiber to distribute force away from the impact zone. There’s no hard shell. The heart-shielding Protection-Pod™ system uses iron-on Velcro® patches so the protection follows the player and can be used with any uniform, while HeadGuard fits inside any baseball cap, Green explains.

Safety for thrill seekers

The need for impact protection among recreational enthusiasts—where adrenaline junkies tend to congregate—is just as important as in organized sports. “The safety trend is booming,” says Martin Rasinger, chief executive officer of Bagjump™ Action Sports Inc., a manufacturer of impact-absorbing airbag safety systems with U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, Calif. “People want to take more risks, go bigger and faster, but, at the same time. they want to stay safer and safer.”

Bagjump’s two patented safety system lines—one for fun and training, the other purely for safety—consist of a PVC-coated nylon fabric vertical or horizontal base bag, covered by a replaceable PVC-coated fiberglass webbing Topsheet®. The bags provide a safe landing for free-falling fun-seekers, as well as for athletes in training. “Systems are impact-absorbing, without a trampoline or bounce effect,” Rasinger says.

The material must be tough enough to withstand the sharp edges of ski equipment and the heavy impact force of things like motorcycles, but people also land on the bag. “The material must also be light and highly flexible for a soft catch,” Rasinger says.

Due to these wide-ranging demands, manufacturers in Canada, Italy and Germany produce bulk fabrics for Bagjump according to the company’s proprietary specifications. “Buyers are typically places like ski resorts, bike parks, climbing facilities, sports academies, etc.,” he says, and the bags come in a variety of configurations for training purposes.

Renters typically are organizers of shorter-duration events, like festivals and concerts, who set up the Bagjump for enthusiasts wanting to “freedrop,” Rasinger says.

Protection breeds potential

Impact protection can have its own snowball effect, especially where thrill-seekers are concerned. Part of what drives the market is the natural desire to “protect those in harm’s way,” says Gunther Williams, chief operating officer of Idaho Sewing for Sports Inc. in Grangeville, Idaho. “It’s the thought a safe person gets when they see someone doing something dangerous. I could call it the ‘oh-oh, why are they doing that, it looks so dangerous’ syndrome. As long as there are thrill-seekers, there will be others wanting to provide a way for them to seek even more thrills.”

Idaho Sewing capitalizes on the trend by producing obstacle-covering impact pads of high-density, open-cell foam, covered by 18-oz. nylon-coated vinyl. Fabrics and other materials come from manufacturers in California and Washington. Because of exposure to extreme temperatures, materials need to have a high cold-crack resistance and adequate UV protection, Williams says.

Weather is one of the reasons they use open-cell foam, he says. “Unlike closed-cell foams, the pads maintain their absorption rate and don’t freeze solid,” Williams says. “They also provide a cushy ride on chairlifts.”

Product testing is key for Williams. A supplier recently brought him a new padding sample. It worked fine in the office, but “in winter mountain conditions, it hardened and froze,” he says. “It wasn’t a product you’d want your guests to impact on to reduce injury.” Without the real-world test, Williams’s customers may not have fared well. “As impact protective fabrics improve, we’ll only create a need for even better stuff,” he says.

Undetectable protection

Overall, the trend in wearable impact protection is toward more customized, specific and discreet protection. “Body armor in sport is not a new concept, but hard-shell armor can be cumbersome and uncomfortable, so people don’t bother to wear it,” says Louise Wilson, communications manager for U.K.-based D3O.

Increasing the comfort of impact protection was part of the idea behind D3O®, the company’s namesake product. The material is an intelligent-molecule polymer composite that contains a chemically engineered dilatant, which functions as an energy absorber. In the material’s raw state, molecules flow freely and stay flexible, but when hit, they lock together to absorb and disperse the shock. Then they return to their flexible state. Formulations include elastomers, microcellular foams and polymers.

D3O works with clients on a made-to-order basis, adapting the product to specific use and performance conditions, and also offers a standard line of items—for example, limb and back protection, as well as D3O sheet material—that client companies can incorporate into their own products.

“The biggest change we foresee in impact protection would be the development of even more discreet protection. The challenge is to create something thinner, lighter—stealth,” Wilson says.

Currently, D3O’s two main focuses are motorcycle and personal protection equipment, but the company also works in the sports, footwear and electronics markets. D3O helped design the U.S. and Canadian ski teams’ Spyder racing suit worn in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

The technology team is always watching the market for new opportunities, Wilson adds, and “solutions to problems that perhaps haven’t even been realized yet.”

Jan M. Brenny is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.

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