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On the front line of government markets

September 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Markets

Military and government entities rely on fabric products for highly specialized uses, but budget cutbacks have prompted market adjustments.

While some folks may complain that government is getting too expansive, few would opt to shrink—never mind abandon—the essential functions its protective services provide. The country depends on the armed forces in wartime and as peacekeepers, and the civilian corps of emergency responders who are first on the scene to help when natural disasters strike. Specialty fabrics are used in apparel, gear and structures in support of service providers and the critical work that they do.

Who’s buying what?

Sharon Asmus, president of Travel Products Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., foresees a growing market in the military segment. The bags the company makes are used primarily by police and fire departments, expressly designed to fill the bill.

“They’ve been developed by the individuals who actually use them,” Asmus says. “Those people then field-test them and react to what they like, or not—items they use in everyday operations, like helicopter bags.”

Bags featuring exteriors of ballistic nylon treated with antimicrobials pass those rigorous tests and are very durable, says Asmus. For products offered by Responder Gear Inc., Minneapolis, Minn., another company Asmus owns, 18-ounce vinyl that can resist penetration by natural challenges, such as snow or mud, when dropped from a helicopter is used, answering “a need for first responders who deliver care in unusual places,” she says.

The key to the company’s continued success lies in constant innovation. “One thing we’re doing that’s new is focusing on the bags’ interiors—using clear vinyl with a modular divider system, so users can quickly see what’s in the pockets. Because parts and products change year to year, you want to have the ability to reconfigure. Also, we’ve devised an inventory system in response to complaints that items were not being replaced when used. This way, a quick visual check is easy.”

Exteriors, too, have evolved. The company now uses reflective materials that are more visible “in the dark at the side of a road,” she says.

Katie Bradford, owner of Custom Marine Canvas, Noank, Conn., sells primarily to the U.S. Coast Guard, a longtime customer with which she’s experienced ups and downs. Their business goes along with the budget—and this year, she says, “It’s great!” She attributes part of her success to that old real estate adage: location, location, location.

“We’re headquartered close to the Connecticut Coast Guard Academy. That’s where the tall ship [USCGC] Eagle is berthed, and they needed to play catch-up to look good for a tour of the East Coast. The Academy commissioned new sailboats used for training for the first time since 1965. They finally got the funding and then came to us,” she says.

Those ships required full deck awnings, for which Bradford employed Weathermax®, made by Safety Components, Greenville, S.C. “It doesn’t shrink like acrylic does over these large expanses. For sails it’s Sunbrella®, and, for the exterior utility covers on the heavier-used ships, we used Shelter-rite® from Seaman Corp. because it’s high-quality—and also because it’s American-based. I’ve learned the hard way that the Coast Guard needed something sturdy that helicopters landing nearby wouldn’t tear up.”

Budgets rule bids

Manufacturers like Bradford report that accounts usually go to the lowest bidder, with the added challenge that “one person writes the specs and another one awards the bids.”

Rexanne Metzger, owner of Davis Interiors Ltd. in Norfolk, Va., who also counts the U.S. Navy as a prime customer, agrees that budgets are a key factor—and beyond her control. “The Navy has cut back; they can’t spend like they used to, so things are falling apart and not being replaced. We’ve never been affected by recessions before, but this time, money’s tight.”

Her company makes berth curtains, chair covers and porthole curtains, using Naugahyde® for upholstery and neopryne for curtains, as well as a flame-retardant fabric. “Nomex® is fine for curtains,” she says, “but it’s too thin for upholstery. Naugahyde is less expensive, more popular. We use fabric in the officers’ area, but Naugahyde for the crew; it stands up better—more sailor-proof. Today, there are fewer fabrics for us to choose from,” she says, “because every supplier wants a 500-to-1,000-yard minimum order. And those that produce fabrics that fulfill mil specs are very, very limited.”

Tom Nelson agrees with Metzger. Nelson is a partner of the Advanced Power and Energy Cluster (APC), St. Paul, Minn., a power and energy client of the Minnesota Defense Alliance. His job is to devise military buys—“based on performance and innovation rather than budget,” he says. “The challenge in the fabric industry is that there are not a ton of companies out there.

“At the moment, we’re looking for potential savings in the energy arena: fabrics to reduce total usage related especially to fuel consumption by the generators in tents, but still maintain soldiers’ safety and comfort, focusing on soldiers in their living areas,” Nelson says. “We’re looking at phase-change material to keep soldiers cooler—an evolving hybrid made by Plymouth, Minn.-based Entropy Solutions. And what they develop can be morphed into other projects.”

The tent market stands

Mahaffey Fabric Structures of Memphis, Tenn., supplies tents to the military for a variety of functions: sleeping units, mess halls, offices, command posts and for other functions, says marketing manager Beth Wilson. “Though we did supply tents overseas, these days the demand is strictly for troop training in the U.S. Fort Polk is our largest operation; they contract for 90 vinyl tents and clearspan structures at a time. We’ve been doing it for 10 years, so much of it is routine, but every rotation new demands arise.”

Mahaffey occasionally supplies tents to other governmental units, especially for disaster relief, where they are used for temporary housing, business continuity and medical facilities. But this, too, is subject to budget cutbacks.

“They’re looking to save money, so the account always goes to the lowest bidder,” Wilson says. “It’s
generally not based on relationships. We continue to offer the same quality inventory and service, but we’re making adjustments—in overhead, for example, and working smarter.”

Chattanooga Tent also supplies tents to the military. They’re mainly used in the U.S. as temporary housing during training, says Mike Holland, operations vice president.

“When it’s a bid, obviously you’ve already proved your expertise, so the award is based on lowest price. We’re active, but we’re not doing as much as we used to, due to budget cutbacks.

“We’ve seen the demand evolve from pole tents with no floors in the late ’90s to clearspan vinyl with raised, six-inch floors. Thus, the cost should have gone up as the quality did,” he says. “But, no. Yet with 100,000-square-feet total, volume makes it possible for us. Still, there’s wear and tear on our equipment, so we price accordingly.”

Disaster work is different because “it’s a whole base camp-type deal for disaster mode,” he says. “You need tents to sleep in for a shorter time—a week, 10 days.”

Holland remains optimistic, nonetheless. “Looking forward, if this country is continually abroad fighting wars, the soldiers will need training—thus, tents. And with new technological advances, we now can offer heat and air, thermal roofing that can bear a snow load, and R-value vinyl to help radiate heat down to the floor. There’ll be more need in the future,” he says.

Vested Interest

Apex Mills in Inwood, N.Y., primarily supplies fabric for protective vests, according to president Jonathan Kurz. “More ballistic protection is wanted to protect soldiers against explosive devices.” Yet, military demand has settled down for the company.

“It used to be gangbusters. We couldn’t produce enough,” he says. “But now, it’s slowing down. So what we’re trying to do is expand our product line. It’s all application-driven, typically isolated to the account for which it’s developed.”

Graniteville Specialty Fabrics Inc., Graniteville, S. C., manufactures fabrics for contractors that cater to the military. This company, too, has felt the effects of budget cuts. “Not much has been going on since the third quarter of last year,” says sales manager Yates Bostic. “Folks at the Department of Defense are not moving on military contracts; they’re scared to death to spend money. The biggest military use is in the shelter area: tents,” he says.

“What they want is lighter weight, higher strength, better durability, plus, highly resistant to fire and water,” he says. “In other words, better products.”

Leading that list is Force FR, a vinyl-coated, fire-, water- and mildew-resistant polyester used for soft-sided shelters, valued because it offers increased strength and increased flexibility. The firm’s Force FR Biosafe also incorporates the long-lasting antimicrobial protection valued by the military.

To remain at the forefront, Graniteville is constantly evolving. “As a company, we’re small enough to be extremely flexible,” Bostic says, “developing product innovations and taking them to the contractors.” In the garment area, it’s things like coatings for tactical vests, and for nonmilitary uses, it’s fabric shelters for disaster relief.

“But the market has basically disappeared in the past six to nine months. We have to wait for budgets to relax. These days there’s a lot more competition in this area, and it’s global,” he says.

“Looking ahead, energy efficiency will be key—for instance, in Afghanistan, addressing the cost of fuel for crossing the mountains through reduced material weights and the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling shelters. The current situation, from a supplier standpoint, is a case of terminal uncertainty,” he says, “with little information and even more inaction.”

SSM Industries, of Spring City, Tenn., specializes in flame-retardant material—or, it used to. Today that’s simply table stakes, says Steve Smith, vice president of sales and marketing.

“That’s assumed now,” he says. “These days the military is looking for additional bells and whistles, like moisture-wicking technology; it’s all about comfort. They visited some Outdoor Retailer trade shows and told us, ‘like that: lighter weight, but FR.’ It’s really been a challenge to guys like us,” he says.

“We’ve concentrated on the knit side: fabrics that are light, breathable, stretchy. Now the big push is to use them in undergarments with ballistic protection as well,” he says, “plus, antimicrobial and moisture wicking.”

SSM looks to its in-house R&D division for the next new thing. “We’re more like an engineering company that just happens to be in textiles,” he explains. “We have 50 projects going through our plant at any one time, developing individual solutions for individual accounts.”

Most of what SSM develops is for the military, but it can then piggyback onto other commercial and governmental accounts. “The winds have changed,” he says. “Today it’s the military driving it. They want the cutting edge.”

To keep on cutting, SSM has recently partnered with Cotton Inc., Cary, N. C., to develop a hybrid fabric called PRO-C, marrying SSM’s flame-resistant and antimicrobial technologies with Cotton Inc.’s trans-dry wicking technology—“thus, the comfort of cotton and wicking with FR assurance.” As he emphasizes, “the military wants all that, plus low cost too. We’re always looking for the next best thing.”

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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