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Marching orders for military textiles

October 1st, 2013 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Feature, Markets

Technological developments lead to uniforms and gear that perform double duty: protect the soldier while withstanding harsh environments.

When David Accetta entered Army basic training in 1983, the U.S. was still in the throes of the Cold War. Soldiers’ uniforms featured a Woodland camouflage pattern made of dark brown, dark green, black and a bit of tan. “It was designed for an environment that was similar to the U.S. and specifically to Europe,” recalls Accetta, now chief of public affairs at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Mass., which is responsible for developing clothing for the Army. “At the time we were expecting another fight on the Korean Peninsula and an invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet bloc.”

Two decades later, the U.S. was involved in a different kind of conflict—this one in the blazing deserts of the Middle East, with very different threats to soldiers than conflicts 20 years earlier. In his multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Accetta and his fellow soldiers wore the Advanced Combat Uniform (ACU), which displayed a digitized universal camouflage pattern designed to better blend with the environment.

There was more than just a new appearance behind the new uniforms. “We needed to be able to protect our troops from the flame or high heat that goes along with the blast and shrapnel that is an IED [improvised explosive device],” Accetta explains.

To ensure the safety of its men and women fighting overseas, the U.S. military partners with researchers, material manufacturers and other industry leaders to test, develop and deploy personal protective equipment (PPE) utilizing the newest textile technologies.

Fabric technologies

“There is an awful lot of science and technology that goes into the development not only of the military uniform, but the fabric itself,” Accetta says. “It has to be comfortable, breathable, durable, washable and colorfast, and it has to maintain its lack of infrared reflectivity.”

“The military requires a high level of performance in the fabrics it uses,” adds Dr. Eugene Wilusz, senior scientist with the U.S. Army NSRDEC. “Protection and durability are of utmost importance. Multifunctionality is a very useful attribute. Other factors that need to be considered include comfort and cost.”

Another crucial goal for the military is to lighten the heavy loads warfighters must carry, without compromising required performance. DSM Dyneema LLC, Stanley, N.C., is helping the military achieve this goal with Dyneema®, its ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fiber. Produced in unidirectional composite sheets using a gel-spinning process, Dyneema is extremely light, but stronger than steel.

The fiber is used in personal protection solutions such as bullet-resistant vests and inserts that will stop rifle or armor-piercing rounds. Dyneema also appears in vehicle protection. “Dyneema adds an extreme amount of ballistic protection without adding more weight, and sometimes it can shave off some of the weight,” says Shitij Chabba, global business segment director for DSM Dyneema.

Flame resistance (FR), another important attribute, goes hand in hand with ballistic protection. In fact, the prevalence of IEDs (and resulting injuries and death from them) prompted W.L. Gore and Associates Inc., Newark, Del., to investigate and develop its own fabric technology “that provides a lighter weight and more packable capabilities, and that does not compete with our existing products but adds to the portfolio of FR technology,” says Jason Rodriguez, a marketing and communications representative for W. L. Gore.

The company’s military fabrics division partnered with military clothing and tactical gear manufacturer Massif to develop Massif® Battleshield™ and Massif Battleshield X™ fabrics. The new nylon-faced laminates employ GORE® FR stretch technology, which increases breathability while improving water repellency and water entry pressure. (The Battleshield and Battleshield X fabrics are currently used in Massif’s tactical jackets. Plans for using these fabrics in other military garments are underway.) In addition, Gore has developed GORE® PYRAD™ flame-retardant technology, a self-extinguishing laminate that provides protection against arc-flash and flash-fire incidents. GORE PYRAD is currently being introduced by Virginia-based ADS Inc. in its Dismounted FREE system, specifically designed for ground troops.

NSRDEC has developed and fielded an FR version of the ACU, a blend of FR rayon, aramid and nylon. An insecticide is also now being applied to the FR ACU to combat insect- and tick-borne diseases. Additional improvements to uniforms include an FR coverall for combat vehicle crewmen made of aramid, nylon and cotton; a new Army Combat Pant that combines FR and ruggedness and includes integrated, removable knee pads; the Generation III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System, updated to decrease weight and bulk while providing a greater range of breathability and environmental protection; and Soldier Plate Carrier and Pelvic Protection systems to increase protection against ballistics and IEDs.

NRSDEC is also investigating “self cleaning” uniforms, being given a durable, super-repellent coating. Field tests have revealed that the coated fabric showed minimal to no attraction to dust and dirt and resisted oil and dangerous chemicals.

When it comes to tactical gear, “it’s all about performance and value—faster, lighter, cheaper,” says Bob Rosania, CEO of Philadelphia, Pa.-based Ehmke Mfg. Co. Inc. The company’s High Ground line is comprised of carriers, ammo and radio pouches, slings and other products. “Our focus is to analyze the specific mission the operator is performing, and how our gear can improve his chances of success.”

Unique challenges, demand and supply

Producing textile-based PPE for the military requires a thorough understanding of the various services’ needs and procurement strategies. “The challenges in working with military textiles not only include the seriousness of the threats involved, but also the extreme climates and environments that the textiles encounter,” Wilusz says. “In the best of circumstances, the textiles are still subjected to very rugged wear.”

Ron Houle, vice president of government relations, DHS Systems LLC, Orangeburg, N.Y., believes that the biggest challenge across all areas of military textiles—including uniforms, protective gear and shelters—is predictability. “Your production has to be very agile,” says Houle, whose company manufactures mobile tactical shelters. “It has to be very efficient, and it has to respond to some unexpected spikes or unexpected declines in the orders that might come in from the Department of Defense.”

One way that Gore stays ahead of challenges is through rigorous testing of materials. “We have a rain room that allows us to test in rain that is 3 inches per hour, as well as wind,” Rodriguez explains. “We have the humidity lab, which allows us to test products made with Gore fabrics at varying temperatures and humidity levels. We also test and evaluate products that manufacturers make using Gore materials to ensure they meet the right spec requirements and the quality we stand behind.”

Looming budget cuts and sequestration, combined with a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, also may affect military textile development, but to what extent is unknown. “The U.S. Department of Defense spent $716 billion—that’s billion with a B—on defense spending and underlying costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2012,” Rosania notes. “The DoD is still purchasing goods and supplies each and every day, despite the rhetoric being spread in the media. Of course, with the operations winding down in both these countries, the defense budget most certainly should be ‘right-sized’ to address current-day and future threats.”

He adds that the “the days of multi-year, indefinite-quantity, indefinite-delivery contracts are mostly gone.” Instead, the DoD is slowly becoming a “value shopper” and investing in those products and services that support their mission of smaller-sized, specialized troops pursuing specific targets. “We have found that if we can educate our military customer on the value of new technology that addresses their specific mission needs, the DoD is willing to invest in our product offerings despite budget limitations,” says Rosania.

With the U.S. at war on two fronts over the last decade, “there were a lot of opportunities for innovation and inclusion for many companies,” Houle says. “Now we are in a new day with a shrinking and declining defense budget, where all the services are experiencing a reduction in manpower, a reduction in deployment. It’s going to be a more competitive, more challenging environment for all of us.”

In response, DSM Dyneema is taking a nimble approach with the military market. The company has invested heavily in its North Carolina plant to increase capacity. The company is also focusing on what it calls “micro-innovations.” These solutions entail making small modifications to existing technology that allow new products to hit the market faster, but within budget and maintaining quality.

“Dynema is still only at 40 percent of its theoretical strength,” Chabba notes. “It will go through multiple innovations in the next few decades.”

Cath Rogan, principal with the technology consultancy Smart Garment People in Lancashire, U.K., also believes that innovation will be the key to survival in the marketplace. “With budget cuts biting hard, military buyers are looking for innovations that deliver better value rather than simply lower prices, or at least that’s what they say,” Rogan says. “The challenges for suppliers are not to simply cut costs, but in finding new ways to add value and performance which the customer both values and can afford. The military will continue to provide considerable funding for research and innovation, so suppliers should make the most of this support to take risks and develop truly innovative products.”

Military—and more

Diversification is on the minds of many manufacturers working in military markets. “In the event military purchasing should happen to decrease, other markets will still require high-performance textiles,” Wilusz says. “These markets include emergency responders such as police and firefighters, sports clothing, outdoor and camping clothing and gear, and medical garments. Some of these markets will be dependent on the state of the nation’s economy.”

Although targeting different segments can open doors and keep businesses afloat, Rogan cautions against viewing the police/first responder market simply as “other outlets” for existing products. “These are specialized markets with equally specialized requirements. The supply routes and product expectations are quite different from military,” she notes. “Many military suppliers have failed in these markets because they simply re-brand their military products, with a few tweaks in color or design as a nod to the first-responder market. There is a large area of product cross-over, but suppliers need to understand the differences better than the similarities and make sure this is reflected in their product and distribution channels. If they get this right these markets can represent a fantastic opportunity.”

Rogan adds that implementing a commercialization strategy that actively looks beyond PPE for sales or licensing opportunities in other markets, such as medical products or sportswear, could be the key to offsetting the costs and risks of developing products for the military sector alone. “Such markets also represent an opportunity to commercialize innovative IP or products and gain an income from innovations which might otherwise languish for years in military development cycles. Some military technology suppliers have generated the majority of their turnover from commercial markets while waiting for their military projects to make it beyond R & D.”

Rosania believes that fabric companies can do more in making products for the military. “It’s given that the textile products need flawless workmanship, world-class quality and can withstand the harshest environments,” he says. “Textile companies need to move beyond ‘form, fit and function’ and bring innovation to their product lines that helps the military execute their mission.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Joshua Tree, Calif.

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