Industry support for university researchers can help drive new developments in advanced textiles markets.
By Amit Kapoor
What are the most exciting or intriguing developments in the industry in advanced technologies?
First Line Technology primarily develops and manufactures products for the U.S. Department of Defense and first responders, so some of the most intriguing developments in textiles for us right now have actually been around for quite some time; the discoveries of new uses for materials (such as cotton, which has been in use for centuries) have created huge opportunities for growth and multiplied development.
For example, unbleached, raw cotton can be used in First Line’s FiberTect® to absorb toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) and crude oil. It’s the base materials like cotton and polyester that can be combined with new production processes and technologies, such as advanced carbon fiber or needle punching techniques, to develop fabrics that can be used for previously unheard of capabilities, such as extremely effective air filtration and decontamination of chemical warfare agents (CWAs).
Other developments in the works that are particularly interesting to the industry are nanotextiles, or textiles that incorporate nanotechnologies. In our industry, nanoparticles can be applied to a polyester- or cotton-based fabric in order to provide advanced decontamination properties.
In addition to decontamination products like FiberTect®, First Line develops a personal cooling product that uses the phase-change material, PhaseCore®. New colormetric technologies are very intriguing to our industry because it gives a first responder or warfighter the ability to monitor his or her own body temperature (or the environmental temperatures) in order to stay as safe as possible.
We hope to eventually develop an application in which colormetric technology is applied to our cooling vests, so first responders can simply look down to see whether their cooling vests are actively protecting them or whether it’s time to safely retreat from a heat stress zone.
Who is driving new developments, the researchers or the markets?
I would say that new developments are coming 40 percent from the researchers and 60 percent from the market. While the researchers continue to have wonderful, creative, ground-breaking ideas (particularly in the areas of developing new nanotechnologies, nanotextiles and e-textiles), research budgets have been cut back as a result of our current economic situation. I believe that this is both unsatisfactory and unnecessary and can be prevented if the industry really decides to promote and support the researchers by partnering with universities. (First Line Technology has partnered with Texas Tech University.)
While the economy appears to be the cause of many of the problems from the view of the researchers, it is precisely the thing that is driving new developments from the markets. Because the U.S. government has had to decrease its demand and tighten its budgets, it has started to require more efficient, effective and smarter textiles, which creates work for those researchers and research institutions that are awarded funding.
What is the market demanding and how is your company or research team responding to market demands?
The market is demanding smarter textiles, so at First Line Technology we are working with university-level researchers to help them fund new and innovative processes for making both textiles and finished goods. We’re also working with universities to find new applications for old fabric technologies, such as silver-coated fabric, which has been used for years for its antibacterial and wound-healing properties.
Today, however, First Line is looking at using silver for new applications in chemical warfare or toxic industrial chemical (TIC) decontamination. The changing world and requirements from the military require flexibility, so we enjoy working with universities because that relationship helps us to be more agile in responding to market demands.
Are new technologies are finding their applications and markets? If so, where is the most robust growth occurring, or likely to occur in the near future? If not, what’s holding up the implementation of new technologies?
There are a number of new technologies in the works, and even though commercialization is currently lagging (due, in large part, to the lack of available investment dollars), I don’t believe this is a permanent condition. Nanotextiles and e-textiles are two of the areas where growth is highly likely to occur—assuming researchers are able to acquire funding. Research and development is an expensive process, as is producing these new products, and the purchasing cycle has been highly impacted by the worldwide economic situation. The old adage of “do more with less” doesn’t really apply to the R&D world where more funding is needed to push the research envelope.
What new products and/or processes are being developed now that will have the most profound impact on the way in which end product manufacturers do business tomorrow?
Textiles used to have one primary functional property, but that is no longer the case in our industry. With the emergence of nanotextiles and e-textiles, it is now possible to blend many new functional properties—including fire-retardancy, tensile strength, colormetric properties and heat transfer properties—into one textile. A blended textile allows for a fabric that is both smart and super lightweight, and with nanotextiles, our future is bright.
I believe that sometime in the relatively near future, end product manufacturers (EPMs) will be able to customize textile products “on the fly” per customer demand, without having to go back to the raw material manufacturers to change product specs. For example, new processes could be developed in which the EPM could change the color of a product by reprogramming an e-textile, or by using an additive applied to a fabric that changes its color.
The future of textiles is bright even with a tough economy. When I attend the IFAI conference every year I am impressed with the new R&D being put out for technical textiles. I look forward to this year’s conference in Boston and seeing how we can incorporate new processes and textiles into our future product lines.