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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

3-D Revolution

Entrepreneurial spirit drives 3TEX to develop 3-D composites for a variety of applications.

3TEX's 3WEAVE Glass Preform News today is full of plant closings, massive layoffs, reduced shifts and production decreases. If one formed all impressions of the U.S. textile industry by the headlines that scream from the pages of newspapers almost daily, it would be difficult to think that there might be a sunbeam or two ripping through the dark storm clouds that seem to hover perpetually over this oldest and most basic of industries.But those sunbeams are there and they are actually growing in number. For every Spartan that closes its doors, for every Mayfair that is forced to shut down multiple plants, for every corporation that must abandon its roots, there is a small, specialized company opening somewhere. And these entrepreneurial ventures are not just holding their own against the massive onslaught of cheap, imported textile products; they are thriving, generating impressive volumes and margins.Consider, for example, the story of 3TEX, a weaving company that, while only two years old, is growing at a remarkable pace. And in that growth, there is a lesson this small company can teach about product innovation, research and development, and the pursuit of highly specialized markets.You wont find row after row of high-speed weaving machines churning out commodity fabrics in this companys manufacturing facilities. That, as the saying goes, would be like making ice at the North Pole. Theres more than enough product in that arena and far too few buyers. 3TEX, however, has bet the farm on the fact that it can develop and weave certain specialized fabrics better than anybody else. So far, that bet is paying off handsomely. 
(left to right): 3TEXs R and D team includes Dr. James Singletary,Dr. Larry Dickinson, Don Wigent, Dr. Alexander Bogdanovich,Dr. Pu Gu, Dr. Mahmoud Salama and Dr. Dima Mungalov. Getting StartedThe seeds for the founding of 3TEX were actually planted more than a decade ago, when Dr. Mansour Mohamed, an Egyptian-born professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, N.C., and a Textile Industries contributing editor, received a grant from the NASA-supported Mars Mission Research Center to use his research on three-dimensional weaving to develop lightweight structures for space applications.Ten years later, in May 1998, Dr. Mohamed who had retired from NCSU two months earlier armed himself with some private financing, licensed his patents from the university and put on his entrepreneur hat to become the first employee at 3TEX. Twelve months later, in May 1999, after incubating on NCSUs Centennial Campus, he and 10 employees moved to a 30,000-square-foot facility in Cary, N.C., which now serves as 3TEXs headquarters and technical center for research and development. In May 2000, 3TEX expanded its operations to include a 30,000-square-foot facility in Rutherfordton, N.C., and officially made the jump from research and development to commercialization. 
Today, Dr. Mohamed is the chairman and chief scientific officer of 3TEX. Dr. Mohamed and the company have developed a three-dimensional orthogonal weaving technology that enables the production of competitively priced composite materials that are stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum. Using its computer-directed looms, 3TEX puts together two sets of fibers such as Kevlar®, glass, ceramic and carbon or a hybrid of the four piling up to 15 layers.A third set of yarns, what 3TEX calls the Z-yarn, vertically ties the layers together into a compact shape to create a preform that resembles the end product. Currently, 3TEX is building a machine that will be capable of weaving up to 60 layers into a 6-inch-thick fabric. 3TEX has a total of 19 two-dimensional and three-dimensional weaving machines, having widths of up to 72 inches. The company is in the process of building a 120-inch machine that will be ready next year.  
After the preform is inserted into a mold of the end product, the company injects resin into the vacuum-packed preform to create the finished composite. Developed with 3TEXs automated 3-D orthogonal weaving process, the resulting composite exhibits improved strength; a high resistance to corrosion, fatigue and fracture; and an architecture that prevents delaminating. It doesnt expand and shrink, Dr. Mohamed said. It has tremendous properties because of heat dissipation, better thermal properties, and very low coefficient of thermal expansion. Vacuum infusion also means the process isnt hazardous to the environment.Traditional composites are created by a labor-intensive lamination process, in which multiple layers of fabric and resin are molded together to build up thickness. Having layers in the composite means its susceptible to de-lamination in the event of severe stress or impact. With 3TEXs process, manufacturers can save money because less resin is used and time, because it takes much less manpower to infuse a preform with resin. For example, it took 3TEX only 30 minutes to inject a 10-foot boat with resin. On average, we can reduce the weight of conventional composites by 20 percent, while improving their performance, Dr. Mohamed said. Going Ballistic And Getting DefensiveFrom aerospace parts to bulletproof vests to kayaks, 3TEX is proving that, using its 3-D technology, it can revolutionize and grab a slice of the $24-billion-a-year composites industry. 3TEX has received contracts from the U.S. government to develop armor materials for ground vehicles; carbon rocket nose cones; pistons; and other high-temperature, high-stress engine parts all using 3-D woven composites.The government isnt the only one that has caught on to the potential of 3TEXs technology. American Technology Applications Knowledge (ATAK) Inc., San Jose, Calif., and Second Chance Body Armor Inc., Central Lake, Mich., the largest manufacturer of soft, concealable personal body armor in the U.S., are teaming up with 3TEXs Ballistic/Defense Development market segment to develop and design a wide variety of ballistic and defense products. These products include police and military protective gear, such as shields and barriers, helmets, body armor vests and combat vehicles.These markets are all turning to composites as alternatives to steel, said 3TEX President and CEO, Brad Lienhart, because it helps them lighten their loads, and expand their carrying capacity and the speed at which they can move. Moving The Marine IndustryLightening up is particularly important to the marine industry, because its always on the lookout for new ways to speed up boats, kayaks and canoes. Sonic USA, a Hollywood, Fla.-based builder of performance power boats, has signed a long-term deal to produce annually more than 200 26- to 85-foot-class boats using 3TEXs composite products. Were very excited about the potential of building lighter, faster boats with 3TEX preforms and new state-of-the-art vacuum infusion processes, said Richard Hewitt, owner, Sonic USA, while not reducing boat safety or durability.3TEXs materials and composites have already been used in the construction of a 45-foot Sonic USA racing boat for award-winning racer Byron Unger. Its superior performance was proven at the New York State Poker Run 2001 race, when Unger won the 80-plus mile-per-hour class, as well as the Best Looking Boat award.A team of undergraduate and graduate students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Savannah, Ga., have followed suit with the design and construction of a 22-foot family sport boat. SCAD Professor Tom Gattiss goal is to continue to use 3TEXs innovative materials and technology to create attractive, low-maintenance boats that will outperform current boats. The SCAD boat will be on exhibit at the Composites Fabricators Association (CFA) show in October.But boats arent the only ones picking up speed with 3TEX composites. Confluence Watersports, Archdale, N.C., has turned to 3TEX to help it design lighter, stronger, more durable kayaks and canoes. 3TEXs composite materials allow for the design of a variety of shapes, which means the composite paddlesport can be suited for a wide range of paddlers whether its a longer design for speed, or a shorter design for better mobility. Regardless of length, the end result is a canoe or kayak that is easier to transport and capable of withstanding harsh water conditions.Resins giant Reichhold, Research Triangle Park, N.C., has joined forces with 3TEX to get in on the marine action as well. Together, the two companies have developed a boat in the box program, in which Reichhold brings the resins and 3TEX offers the preforms, to help marine manufacturers increase productivity and lower their overall manufacturing costs per boat. 3TEX composites can be applied to paddles and helmets, as well as being used in many other applications. Ramping Up
3TEX is already using its patented 3-D weaving technology to develop soccer shin guards for sporting goods manufacturer Brine Inc., Milford, Mass. And the company is in talks with medical research centers about using 3TEX composites in prostheses.The applications for 3TEXs technology appear endless, and thats becoming evident in the companys revenue growth and the amount of interest its generating with investors. The startup has secured $15 million in venture capital and private placement. DB Capital Inc., an affiliate of Deutsche Bank AG, led 3TEXs most recent round of funding. Lienhart expects sales to more than double in 2001, to approximately $10 million, and in anticipation of increased demand for its composites, the more-than-50-employee company has leased another 20,000-square-foot building in Rutherfordton. The company also hopes to identify a location for a manufacturing facility in Europe by next year. 
In May, 2001, 3TEX was featured in Fortune Magazine as one of a handful of textile companies that are turning to technology and innovation to develop new high-performance products. This development has turned the company from a dream into a thriving business. In years to come, others will have to follow in the pioneering footsteps of this upstart if the U.S. textile industry is to flourish in the new millennium.

October 2001