Manufacturers of fabric-based products find great potential in handling and transporting cargo, as fibers and fabrics become lighter and stronger.
The vast majority of products sold must make their way from the place where they are manufactured to the place where they will be used. That simple truth equates to an ocean of opportunities for companies whose products facilitate the transportation and handling of cargo. Advancements in fiber technology, coupled with growing demands for cost savings and safety, make today’s fabric-based cargo-handling products—everything from straps and netting to bulk bags and containment covers to special aircraft—attractive solutions for getting goods efficiently from Point A to Point B.
Advancing the industry
InCord Ltd. in Colchester, Conn., makes custom safety netting for industrial, construction, sports, amusement and theater applications. But it also makes netting for pallet racks, conveyors and transportation. The company’s cargo lifting nets are used for large objects, such as raising an air-conditioning unit onto a roof.
“We feel netting is an advantage over steel or wood because it’s so flexible and comes back to its original state,” CEO Chip Merritt says. “You can scrunch down a net into a box; you can’t do that with a steel cage.”
InCord primarily uses knotless polypropylene made by a German company. “The reason we love it so much is that it’s woven on a loom, so it makes the finish look better; and it’s a stronger design because it’s woven,” Merritt says.
AmSafe Bridport of Dorset, England, perpetuates its hometown of Bridport’s rope-making history dating to the Middle Ages. The company makes pallet nets and reusable thermal blankets and acts as a distributor for cargo covers made of DuPont Tyvek®. Prime customers for Tyvek covers are pharmaceutical companies that must ensure drugs reach their destination without being compromised by temperature spikes during transportation.
The company stands poised for an FAA standard following National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations issued in late 2012. After investigating three catastrophic fires in cargo planes, the NTSB prescribed fire-containment covers.
“We have designed and manufactured a cover made out of intumescent material attached to a pallet net, which is used to restrain a load but also acts as a fire-containment cover up to 800 degrees centigrade for six hours,” says Joe Ashton, senior sales manager, commercial cargo. “It’s been eight years in development, and now we supply a number of major cargo operators with this product. Customers include major cargo operators in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
AmSafe Bridport recently introduced a tie-down strap that meets a Technical Standards Order for cargo straps that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2016.
“Barriers to entry [in the cargo handling market] are quite low,” Ashton says. “However, you have to have an understanding to manufacture products that meet all the technical specifications. That’s why we are involved in [industry standards] panels.”
Aeros of Montebello, Calif., is looking ahead to 2016 as well. That’s when the company expects to receive FAA certification for the newest product in its lineup of lighter-than-air crafts. For 20 years, the company has been making traditional blimps for cameras and advertising. Its new ML866 is designed specifically to transport heavy cargo.
“There have been numerous customers who have wanted the ability to do point-to-point delivery, especially with oversized ‘project’ cargo,” says John Kiehle, director of communications. “There’s been a need to side-step some of the infrastructure development cost in payloads.”
Because it takes off and lands vertically, the ML866 can deliver cargo to remote locations, and it uses about a third of the fuel of traditional aircraft. Aeros expects to put its first fleet of cargo ships into operation in 2020–2021: four vehicles with a 66-ton cargo capacity and 18 with a 250-ton cargo capacity. A five-year process of engineering and development resulted in a prototype about half the size of the smaller ship.
“We use a variety of fabrics, depending on the system in the aircraft,” says Tim Kenny, lead engineer. “For the skin, it’s mostly polyester. However, we also use Vectran®, nylon, Mylar®, Kevlar® and carbon fiber. How we form the pieces and cut the materials and bond them is proprietary. We have built our own machines to handle this.”
Aeros has been working with military partners to develop the ML866 for moving troops and cargo and for increasing disaster response capabilities. The primary target customers, however, are the energy industry (including wind energy companies that have to transport large turbine blades), offshore exploration, mining, lumber and disaster relief.
Solar Ship Inc. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is in the test-flight/demonstration stage of its inflatable, heavier-than-air craft. The vehicle is powered by solar cells and uses a helium-filled wing to fly in and out of an area the size of a soccer field. The company was founded specifically to get medical supplies from cities with infrastructures to remote places that are inaccessible by traditional cargo carriers or that airplanes cannot reach on a single tank of fuel.
According to CEO Jay Godsall, cargo costs for serving northern Ontario communities with populations of 500 to 1,500 people run somewhere between $20 million and $25 million. “For us to service those places would cost $1.5 million to $2 million,” he says. Additionally, he notes, ice roads that large trucks could once travel are disappearing, which increases the number of inaccessible populations. The company’s second target area will be Africa.
Currently Solar Ship makes its envelopes of a synthetic multi-laminate fabric. “Typically nylon or polyester fabrics are used as the base fabric, providing strength to the structure,” says SÃ©bastien Fournier, chief innovation officer. “Polyurethane coatings provide gas retention and environmental protection, while being weldable.”
Shrink to fit—and protect
Transhield Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., took the concept of polyethylene shrink film and laminated it with nonwoven polyester to protect cargo not only from the elements, but also from abrasion and condensation.
“The nonwoven also allows us to cut and sew our material into covers, versus conventional shrink wrap, which only comes on rolls,” says Matt Peat, vice president of sales and marketing. “The materials that go into the Transhield product are manufactured on standard machines that have customized elements and are assembled on a custom lamination machine. Those roll products are then cut and sewn into custom covers. The machines at this portion of the process are customized to gain quality and efficiency. All elements of the products coming to life are not only customized, but also there is a skill level at each stage that took years to develop.”
For shipping large pieces of machinery, Transhield offers a lightweight cover that ties down easily and secures into place. The cover then can be heated to shrink to a tight fit that prevents movement. The soft, nonwoven lining prevents damage to painted surfaces and keeps cargo mildew- and corrosion-free.
“And once the unit is off-loaded, it is still covered, whereas a tarp is going with the driver,” Peat notes.
Transhield was recently awarded an $8.3 million contract to supply protective covers for more than 4,500 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles in the U.S. Army fleet, as well as for 217 U.S. Navy MRAPS, U.S. Marine Corps Light Armored Vehicles, M777 Howitzers and other critical items.
“Buyers are becoming more cost-conscious within the overall spectrum of the product life cycle. They are not just looking at the cheapest way to deliver to the consumer, but rather the best way to deliver to the consumer,” Peat says. “Customers want something that solves problems. Ease of use, protection from the elements, moisture control and corrosion control are all big problems that we solve.”
At AmSafe Bridport, Ashton says, two prime considerations for customers are cost and weight savings. And, according to Merritt, the No. 1 request is for capacity (i.e., a net that will lift a ton). In addition to the usual desires of customers, marketplace trends also come into play.
“Even though we have been talking about this as a community for years, I think the green initiatives are really taking hold,” Merritt says. “The other thing I think is going to continue to change is people looking at the longevity of a product. Before it was just, ‘Give me a net,’ and now they’re thinking of other variables, like how long will that net last. We are constantly bringing on more materials. We have 62 netting SKUs today; by the end of the week, we will be close to 70. We offer a wider range of pieces for customers in all material types, and we continue to offer educational and background materials. Testing is a big part of what we do. We just built a $20,000 test frame and will share testing data with an ANSI committee to see if they can’t create some standards.”
Meanwhile, one of the biggest changes Merritt has seen in the marketplace requires “inventory positioning.”
“We are asked, as most manufacturers have been, to carry more inventory for just-in-time turnaround,” he says.
Though currently using helium, Solar Ship is looking ahead at using hydrogen. “There’s a trend to get away from fossil fuels,” Godsall says. “You can access hydrogen anywhere in the world and it’s cheap. Fabric that can mitigate flammability in hydrogen is critical to the future.” He also sees opportunities for the fabric industry to make not just containers and skins, but also landing gear, shock absorbers—and entire systems.
“Come with a fabric that you can roll up and take with you,” Godsall says. “It’s BYOE: bring your own everything.”