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What’s driving transportation textile trends?

To meet sustainability goals, the transportation industry looks to textiles to help build the cars, coaches, trucks and trains of the future.

Feature | Apr. 1, 2021 | By: Debra Cobb

Camira Fabrics’ iconic textile pattern on the London Underground. Celebrating 200 years in transportation textiles in 2022, Camira Fabrics looks forward to contributing to a new line linking London to the West Midlands. Photo: Joe Green on Unsplash.

The transportation industry is undergoing massive disruption, driven primarily by the climate change imperative: electric and hybrid automobiles; e-vans to deliver our online purchases; mandates for fuel economy, emissions and noise reduction; material sustainability; and pandemic-related concerns with health and safety.

New and enhanced textiles for vehicle interiors are in development to help the transportation industry meet these challenges. In its January 2021 report, Report Linker predicts the global automotive interior market will grow from about $110 million in 2020 to about $150 million by the end of 2025.

Mass transit moving ahead

Inherently kinder to the environment than gas-guzzling personal cars, electrified mass transit looked to have a bright future before the pandemic. Britain’s Camira Fabrics Ltd.’s colorful patterns in moquette (cut pile), wire woven cut-and-loop, and flat-woven dobby and jacquard fabrics are familiar to riders of the London Underground, Asia’s high-speed trains, tourist coaches and municipal transit systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business somewhat, says Peter Daly, head of European transport sales for the company. “But we’ve weathered the storm quite well. Bus companies are using this opportunity to renovate interiors, and the global perspective for the rail market is strong. Most rail contracts are for three to four years, so we were slightly protected against the pandemic.”

Camira will likely be involved in High Speed 2, the state-of-the-art, high-speed rail line linking London with the West Midlands and transitioning the U.K. into a low-carbon transport future. Phase 1 is due to open between 2029 and 2033.

Hybrid by Camira Fabrics incorporates the aesthetics of a flat woven fabric with the durability of a wool moquette. Photo: Camira Fabrics Ltd.

“Our key markets are moving to sustainable fabrics, in keeping with the trend to electric vehicles, and wool has a great sustainability story,” Daly says.

Wool materials are ideal for mass transport as they are long-wearing, hydrophilic and breathable, and absorb sound and airborne contaminants. Most importantly, wool fabrics are naturally flame retardant (FR) and don’t melt, smoldering instead with very low toxicity.

Camira’s business in North America is focused on municipal transport systems and touring coaches rather than on personal automobiles, according to Brett Lowell, product manager for transport sales in
North America. 

“The difference is that mass transport fabrics are primarily custom-designed, incorporating custom colors and logos,” Lowell says. “In the automotive business a few color ranges are churned out in mass quantities, usually in flat-woven fabrics, leather and faux leather.”

Camira offers an antimicrobial finish for its wool fabrics called “Defender,” and also provides a range of bleach-cleanable vinyls. The company recently launched Camira StaySafe, an antiviral technology for textiles that reduces the potential for viral transmission from fabric surfaces.

Daly predicts that 2021 will be a lot better than 2020. “[In 2022] we are celebrating 200 years in transport fabrics, which says a lot about the company and gives our customers confidence,” he says.

De Leo Transportation Fabrics, with a design office and showroom in High Point, N.C., also specializes in wool-blend velvets and moquettes for trains and transit buses, as well as polyester and acrylic fabrics for motor coaches. A division of De Leo Textiles, an importer of luxury textiles for furniture manufacturers, wholesalers and retail, the company is the exclusive distributor for Epengle, a Turkish producer of velvets to the transportation industry in Europe, Middle East and the Pacific Rim since 1961.

Stocked in their South Carolina warehouse, all De Leo transit fabrics are available with antimicrobial and FR treatments; pass FMVSS-302 and NFPA 260 fire codes; and are engineered with high abrasion resistance. A full-service transportation textile provider, De Leo also provides vinyl and flatwoven fabrics for the entire transportation industry.

With fewer consumers riding mass transit, the pandemic has not been kind to companies that serve this market. “We will not be introducing a new collection for 2021 but will be serving existing customers with our 2020 collection,” says Ismail Arslan, vice president for business development. “At the moment no one is going on holiday or riding on public transport. Fortunately, our residential fabrics are selling well.”

: A technical woven from Guilford Performance Textiles adds surface texture to seating inserts.

Stretching the boundaries 

While sales of vehicles in the U.S. fell more than 14% in 2020, a second half rebound signaled optimism. At least some consumers fleeing to the suburbs and working at home were ready and willing to buy cars, gravitating to features geared to luxury and sustainability that made them feel comfortable and safe.

As part of Lear Corp., a global automotive technology leader in seating and e-systems, Guilford Performance Textiles benefits from its ability to “stretch our thinking and our boundaries,” says Ray Mylenek, the company’s vice president for automotive fabrics. 

The company’s warp knits designed and engineered for headliners, body cloth and other interior components are “the best in the business,” according to Mylenek. 

Automotive interior fabrics from Guilford Performance Textiles include this architecturally inspired woven. Photos: Guilford Performance Textiles by Lear.

Guilford, acquired by Lear Corp. in 2012, also has expertise in wovens, double-needle bar fabrics and bi-laminate constructions used in innovative seating systems to promote comfort, performance and aesthetics. 

In addition to sustainable solutions, product offerings include antimicrobial and cleanable textiles with an eye on antiviral developments. An expanding market for electrification is also on the radar, says Mylenek. 

Lear is an industry leader in the development of software solutions for automotive applications and supports Guilford with e-textile developments for consumer comfort and connectivity.

“Being part of Lear Corp., a vertically integrated seating company, allows us the ability to work with experts in complete seat systems to deliver products that have never been done before, materials that draw in the consumer,” Mylenek says.

Wheel-well liners using Milliken nonwovens meet the need for lighter, quieter and stronger automotive materials. Photo: Milliken & Company, Textiles Division.

The era of nonwovens

Nonwoven textiles are assisting the industry in meeting the competing demands for luxury and sustainability in new cars and light trucks. According to Milliken & Co.’s Textile Division, needlepunched nonwovens and composites incorporating a high percentage of recycled fibers are replacing plastic injection molded parts and tufted ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA)-backed floor carpets. With up to 50 percent less weight than standard components, nonwovens promote fuel efficiency.

“Injection molded plastics emit VOCs [volatile organic compounds], and that ‘new car smell’ is actually not very good for you,” says Mark Mapes, director of research and development for Milliken & Co.   

In addition, electric vehicles are creating a whole new market for sound absorption, according to Jeff Stafford, Milliken & Co. vice president, nonwovens. He explains that millennial consumers using mobile phones and entertainment and navigation systems expect new mid-level vehicles to have the quiet interiors of high-end versions.

“Removing the high-pitched whines and clicks is a unique challenge,” says Stafford, “but nonwoven materials fill the bill nicely and are more reasonable, efficient and sustainable.”

Electric vehicles require improved acoustic materials, such as needlepunch nonwovens shown here. Photo: Freudenberg Performance Materials.

While the automotive business shut down for two and a half months at the height of the pandemic, the consumer has continued to buy vehicles, and business is now running at higher than pre-COVID levels, he adds.

At Freudenberg Performance Materials, customers have become more serious about recycled content, according to Brett Woodson, business segment manager, automotive. 

“Some OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are requiring that their interiors be made out of recycled materials at a minimum of 25 percent. We’ve learned from Asian and European markets that OEMs are replacing tufted carpet with less durable and less expensive needlepunch carpet in an effort to spend more on technology advancements in electronics that consumers require now,” he says.

Woodson calls himself “cautiously optimistic” for 2021. “The global pandemic has put a spotlight on how complex the global supply chains are. We have become more cognizant of showing that our domestic manufacturing is not only the safest, but the quickest supply source.” 

Debra Cobb is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about the textile industry. She is based in North Carolina.


SIDEBAR: Reducing the danger of vehicular textile fires

A nonhalogenated compound called VersaCHAR inhibits the release of smoke and toxic gas from burning plastics. Photo: Dynamic Modifiers LLC.

Among the danger of transit materials is the flammability of thermoplastics and synthetic textiles that may melt or emit toxic gas and smoke when burning. In automobiles, the lithium-ion batteries used in the growing number of electric and hybrid vehicles pose a fire hazard if damaged or exposed to extreme heat.

A new compound called VersaCHAR is part of a suite of non-toxic/non-halogenated flame-retardant compounds and concentrates in pellet form, offered by Dynamic Modifiers LLC of Atlanta, Ga. These compounds are custom-tailored to the specific application and can be used to extrusion coat almost any fabric or fibrous substrate of almost any fiber, including polyester, nylon, polylactic acid (PLA) and glass. 

VersaCHAR can inhibit flame spread with very low smoke and even achieve some of the most difficult flame-retardant performance (for example, ASTM E84 Class A rating) with incredibly low smoke evolution. According to Dynamic Modifiers’ president Howard Bradshaw, the product is being tested with several suppliers that provide parts and components to some of the largest mass transportation companies based in Canada. The product can also be used to design extremely lightweight extruded or molded electric vehicle (EV) battery trays for toxic off-gas containment resulting from lithium-ion battery fires.

“Dynamic Modifiers has focused on flame-retardant plastics and synthetic fibers for over 20 years, and the trend to move toward safer, nontoxic and more sustainable flame-retardant materials is really coming into focus as more stringent EV automotive and public transportation safety standards become the norm now instead of the exception,” Bradshaw says. “VersaCHAR can meet these difficult automotive and public transportation challenges and safety standards that are soon to be commonplace with the ever-evolving transportation market.”

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