The global economy is in constant motion. For cargo from consumer goods to dangerous chemicals, a new generation of textile products is helping to get things where they need to go, safely and economically.
by Amy Goetzman
Everything’s on the move. As economies expand around the world and gross domestic product rises, more commodities—food and other consumer goods, building materials, heavy machinery, chemicals, military equipment, clean drinking water and every other product needed by people somewhere other than where it’s produced—must get from point A to point B without damage, contamination or loss.
Storage by design
Cargo control and shipping is a constantly changing market for the textile industry, and products are rapidly evolving to take advantage of new technologies and materials. In many cases, design innovation is being done by companies that have been in the business for decades. Carolina CoverTech, North Augusta, S.C., began operations in 1858 as a furniture shipping company. Canvas-based padding, protection and coverings were the industry standard at the time. Today, the company continues to offer industrial sewing craftsmanship, and still makes some canvas-based products—including a traditional canvas wagon cover for a historical reenactment. However, the company’s modern shipping products are constructed from a range of newer materials, including nylon, plastic-based substrates, rubber, urethane and vinyl. Shipping products include bulkheads, covers for cable reels, container dividers and cargo dividers used in refrigerated trucks. The company has in-house printing capabilities and can customize materials with logos or images. Products such as containers for agricultural chemicals and berms to contain liquids depend on highly durable and impermeable textiles such as reinforced PVC.
“We make a lot of products that are designed to hold liquids or air, such as inflatable bumpers that are used to protect sheets of glass during shipping, and many containment products used by the oil industry, such as environmental protection barriers used in the fracking process,” says co-owner Rian True. The products are heat-sealed using an RF welding process that protects seams and corners from leaks or stress. According to True, the critical nature of many of these products demands a rigorous testing process. Fortunately, the company is located across the street from a trucking company. These neighbors help Carolina CoverTech test its own products. “They run 40 trucks a day over our products to test their durability. We’ve put some things through 2,000 overruns to see how they perform.”
Kristin Christopoulos, sales manager at AmCraft Manufacturing Inc., based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., says that creating custom products helps the company stay responsive to trends. The company produces storage and transportation solutions such as industrial curtain walls for shipping containers and warehouses, protective covers for containers and odd-sized goods, and insulated bags. AmCraft focuses on traditional construction and workmanship, combined with new textiles, such as sound-absorbing curtains and baffles made from recyclable and environmentally friendly materials.
“We give businesses a way to divide storage spaces and other industrial areas with durable, protective curtain products,” says Christopoulos. “Well-designed dividers can help reduce HVAC costs by restricting air flow. They effectively contain temperatures. We make an insulated thermal curtain that has fiberglass insulation within two layers. It can be used for food storage zones or to enclose a dock area so that outdoor air doesn’t flow into a space.”
Intertape Polymer Group (IPG) makes fabrics for secondary storage products for dockyards and situations in which products or equipment must be stored outside. “We make fabrics for frame-supported structures for temporary or permanent storage situations. These provide basic protection and security at a lower cost than buildings, and can easily be transported and moved,” says Carey Ewanik, product manager with NovaShield®, an IPG brand headquartered in Sarasota, Fla. NovaShield membrane fabric offers UV protection, fire retardancy and abrasion resistance.
The company also manufactures water storage containers using its AquaMaster® geomembrane fabric, which features a high-density scrim. Hot-wedge RF pinch seals create a strong and waterproof seam for products such as pond liners, retention ponds and tank liners. The roll stock polyethylene product provides lasting protection from the elements and UV rays, and can perform for up to two decades.
A fabric-based storage container has the potential not just to compete with a solid-walled container, but to outperform it. In situations where a soft-sided vessel needs to be malleable, flexible and easily manipulated, a textile is the most suitable material. One critical application for this kind of product is in firefighting. Crews need a storage product that weighs little and packs down small, yet is incredibly rugged. Canadian company BWI Enterprises Ltd. has just the thing: helicopter bags made from coated double-sided PVC.
“This material has greater abrasion resistance than polypropylene. PVC will not absorb moisture, so it is also rot- and mold-resistant,” says owner Brian Cook. “The bags are lifted via eight top webbing loops, which each have one two-inch welded D-ring on the webbing loop, which is sewn in. If the bag is overloaded and a D-ring might break, there are seven other D-rings to keep the bag suspended so it does not drop to the ground in flight. The webbing is sewn from the top of the bag, down the side, under the bag and up the other side. The breaking strength of the webbing is 5,000 pounds, so having eight straps makes this bag indestructible.
“You have to appreciate what these bags go through. Once under a helicopter and full of products, they hang in such a way that they get dragged on the ground and smashed against trees and sides of mountains. Yet our helicopter bags will last years, providing they are handled the correct way and stored in a proper manner when not in use.”
Not all storage solutions need to be able to withstand hard use on trucks and docks. Some must perform in more refined environments. SealWerks manufactures flexible storage solutions for medical products companies, as well as other industries. The storage bags, which can be used to store sterile IV fluids, medicine or blood, are made from polyester substrates and PVC films. Construction methods might include a combination of sewing, RF welding and heat-sealing to ensuretight seams. Some products integrate a valve sealing system that can connect to tubing to fill or inflate the product.
To meet the unique requirements of its customers, SealWerks has an ISO 9001-2015 certification, which qualifies the company to provide medical-grade storage solutions. “The ISO process is so focused on process, from the first time you speak to the customer to the quality assurance and shipping processes used. That ensures consistency and documentation needed to serve customers in the medical, military and aerospace industries,” says Mark Deutsch, principal with the Illinois-based company.
Deutsch says that the products, materials and processes used to create flexible fabric solutions are rapidly evolving, and the company keeps a close eye on a variety of industries to anticipate future needs, in terms of technologies, safety issues, environmental concerns and customer/industry preferences. “We are closely paying attention to 3D printing. Right now that’s a rigid product, but flexibility is coming, and it could have implications for textiles down the road.”
Tough, flexible, versatile
The textiles that support this proliferation of new shipping and storage products cross a wide spectrum. Fabrics that must endure the rigors of travel often feature a woven polyester base fabric, coated to help the materials withstand wind, abrasion and tearing. The substances used to coat the substrates determine the types of products that can be stored in them. For example, flexible storage containers that will hold food or water must be made from NSF-certified materials that won’t leach harmful chemicals. Containers used to transport petroleum and other oil products can’t contain plasticizers, which can migrate in contact with oil, becoming brittle or losing flexibility.
The Heytex Group, headquartered in Bramsche, Germany, has 17 different product groups for technical textiles and works closely with customers to determine the appropriate material for their applications. “Due to increasing numbers of global disasters and the need to support people that need help, we see increasing demand for our HEYstore products in the future,” says Manuel Radke, market manager at Heytex USA.
For disaster control, HEYstore materials are used for mobile water treatment and supply, dirty water storage, water tanks for firefighting, fuel storage and transport and food supplies. For humanitarian aid, in addition to transport and storage of potable water and food storage, HEYstore materials can be used for water storage of shower facilities as well as alternative uses in sewage water and mobile pit latrines.
“We’ve seen a boost in demand for products that can be used to store fresh drinking water in places around the world that are experiencing disasters. In situations where people are displaced by fires, floods and other humanitarian crises, storage is needed for drinking and waste water, and fuel tanks for generators,” says Radke. Heytex offers material solutions that are NSF-certified and safe to store potable water. “Flexible tanks are a good solution. Water tanks produced with our materials can hold up to 50,000 gallons of water. Flexible, collapsible tanks are a great solution as they are lightweight and easy to transport.”
Because of this surge for mobile storage solution needs, Heytex is continually working to develop new materials and technologies to help customers produce more reliable and efficient products. A wide range of PVC and TPE/TPU materials are now available with the HEYseal Encapsulated Edge for the HEYstore portfolio of products; providing storage solutions that can reduce the manufacturing time for welding of edges by up to 50 percent, which eliminates wicking (leaking) completely rather than simply minimizing it. The encapsulated edge fabrics work for flexible tanks, oil booms, potable water bladders and many other storage and transport applications to give customers a complete solution-driven product.
Cooley Group, a company that got its start in 1926 as a manufacturer of canvas awning products, credits its emphasis on R&D with its ability to meet the needs of a constantly changing and expanding shipping industry. Cooley makes numerous high-tech textile products, such as inflatable and portable tanks used in industry and products that protect water quality, such as pond liners, reservoir covers and floating curtains. The company produces a range of geomembranes for these applications, including CoolPro® and CoolGuard® polypropylene-coated fabrics, and produces textiles that incorporate Teflon®, Kevlar® and other materials to increase durability and performance. Other, more critical storage products include tanks used to store and transport jet fuel or other volatile compounds.
“Our expertise comes from the fact that we are vertically integrated and can produce an incredibly wide range of products. Depending on the customer’s need, we can tweak existing designs or create new ones. We are constantly building on our own expertise to keep ahead of the curve,” says Ray Peebles, environmental field sales engineer at Cooley. The company is developing materials that are not just strong, but safe—a matter of key importance in products that are designed for water storage and containment. “The materials we use must resist water as well as protect it, which means barriers must be made from substrates that don’t leach BPA and other contaminates,” says Peebles.
Companies that design and produce containment solutions have seen an exponential growth in demand for products such as textile buffers, padding, dividers and flexible containers that can protect, store and transport an incredibly diverse range of goods. Glass and other fragile products must be protected. Food and other perishable products must be temperature-controlled. Liquids must be stored within impermeable, leakproof containers. Dangerous chemicals and the airborne particles they can emit must stay within safe confines. To keep shipping weight and costs down, the containers and packaging that accomplish all of this must also be lightweight, durable, safe, easy to clean, economical to produce, usually reusable and often recyclable.
The textile industry is taking a leading role in making this multi-trillion-dollar, multimodal logistics enterprise possible.
Amy Goetzman is a freelance writer based in Maplewood, Minn.