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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

Opportunities Abound For Technical Textiles

Technical textiles is a fast-growing segment of the textile industry and provides opportunities for textile companies.

By Jim Kaufman and Sean Kroszner

T echnical and textiles are two words that when combined resonate with opportunity for a growing number of companies in the textile industry. Other terms such as industrial, specialty, performance and engineered textiles may also be used in some markets, but technical textiles encompass each of these areas. Technical textiles are predominately characterized as having specific performance-based attributes and typically must meet established performance specification criteria. Tensile strength and elongation, weight, elasticity, resistance to flammability and high heat levels, moisture-transport capabilities, durability, and weatherability are some examples of attributes that could be included in a technical textiles performance specification. As can be expected, the technical textiles industry is as broad and diverse as the products it generates, with new and innovative applications being developed on a daily basis.

To create some commonality in marketing communications, many companies are adopting the term "technical textiles" and the applications areas characterized by Techtextil, a leading international trade fair for the technical textiles industry (See "Preparing For Techtextil," TW, this issue). Techtextil has identified 12 primary application areas for technical textile products (See Table 1).

It should be noted that these terms are not universally used in the industry; however, they provide a means to help quantify the ever-expanding range of applications for technical textiles and the arenas in which they are being used. The listing also does not include a stand-alone military segment, but it can be argued that the military does purchase and use products from each of these area segments.

For this article, the following four companies from diverse segments of the technical textiles marketplace were approached to provide their perspectives on the current state of technical textiles:

  • Ibena Inc., Spartanburg, is the US sales and warehousing division of Ibena Textilwerke GmbH, a European manufacturer of technical and home textile fabrics. Ibenas core products include woven fabrics for protective apparel used in military, police and firefighter, racing, industrial, and antistatic applications.
  • R & M International Sales Corp., Flourtown, Pa., is an international trading company that imports, exports and domestically trades traditional and technical textile fibers, yarns and fabrics. Its product offerings include high-tenacity flat and textured nylon and polyester yarns for technical markets, along with a new line of spun meta-aramid yarns that are being developed for high-heat-resistant filtration applications.
  • The Quantum Group Inc., Colfax, N.C., is a manufacturer of yarn and flat, tubular and shaped woven and knit fabrics for a wide variety of specialty applications including seating, filtration, architectural and industrial end-uses.
  • T.E.A.M. Inc., Slatersville, R.I., is a manufacturer of woven and braided 2-D and 3-D flat and net shape fabrics custom-engineered for aerospace, military, marine, sporting, and industrial technical textile and composite applications.
The Quantum Group Inc. produces yarn as well as flat, tubular and shaped woven and knit fabrics for a wide variety of applications including seating, filtration, architectural and industrial end-uses.

Products And Technology Trends
Because of the astonishing diversity and range of applications in the technical textiles arena, product trends are difficult to accurately portray for each of the different segments in a brief review. However, all available indications are that the demand for technical textiles in most markets remains strong. Product innovation and performance attributes remain primary drivers for woven fabrics in these markets, often at the expense of non-textile products the technical textiles are replacing. Advances in fiber, yarn, fabric and manufacturing technologies continue to lead to new application opportunities and are helping fabric manufacturers meet the continuously expanding technical objectives and expectations of their customers. As more advanced technical textile concepts are realized and publicized, customer expectations will only continue to grow.

Also of note is that consumers of technical textiles, especially in the more highly engineered applications, appear to have a preference for local sourcing of technical textiles, instead of importing them. This is primarily due to the potential for liability issues related to engineered products with specific performance attributes and a level of confidence achieved with these manufacturers. The current perception is that US and European technical textiles manufacturers are the leaders in innovation, performance, quality and technical merit of these engineered products, making them less susceptible to possible litigation. Lesser-grade technical textiles inevitably become commodities and tend towards imports. However, very few, if any, industry participants feel completely safe from increased foreign competition.

Each of the manufacturers contacted agreed that staying ahead of the technology curve is critical to succeeding in technical textiles. "We are constantly investing in new weaving equipment and technologies to improve our capabilities and product offerings," said Ulrich Tombuelt, vice president, Ibena Inc.

Jeff Bruner, president, The Quantum Group, agreed. "We've chosen to invest in any and every technology needed to succeed and be responsive to our customer needs," he said.

However, it was also noted that the equipment doesn't have to be the latest or most advanced off-the-shelf item, and the investment doesnt necessarily stop with a purchase. "We rebuild old equipment and modify new and old equipment internally to meet the demands for innovation, quality and production," Bruner said. "This allows us to do things that others cant do and to produce fabrics to exacting customer specs on equipment appropriate to the task."

Steve Clarke, president, T.E.A.M., concurred. "Weaving machine design, electronic jacquards and computer design capabilities have certainly helped, but much of our equipment is internally designed, developed and built to meet specific needs," he said.


How Has Business Changed?
The old adage, "the only constant is change," certainly applies to the technical textiles arena. It is a dynamic marketplace where applications, technologies and companies are constantly changing in any number of ways.

"As a supplier to weavers, we've seen a lot of changes, not only in the marketplace, but also in the way companies do business," said Dominic Rawson, vice president, R&M International. "Big companies are relaxing minimum requirements and taking smaller orders as a means to establish and build new customer relationships and get a foothold in potential niche markets. Some larger orders and less technically challenging commodities are going overseas. Theres a consolidation in some areas, with several companies either merging or closing. Others are growing and evolving from other textile industry segments to compete in technical textiles. Were seeing the same from our yarn suppliers. With recent mergers, some yarn suppliers are shutting down and consolidating plants in the states, which is making the local supply more difficult to obtain and maintain. As a result, we have to become a more global entity by buying and selling product all over the world."

Changes in yarn production have directly affected the way The Quantum Group does business. "We now make 95 percent of our own yarn," Bruner said. "The yarn supply base hasn't kept up with our customers needs. We saw prices going up, but quality and delivery were going down. Its also very hard to differentiate your products from others if everyone is buying from the same yarn sources. "

Rawson voiced similar feelings with regard to differentiating products. "We're broadening our product offerings to adapt to the changing markets. Our customers are looking for distinctive products that allow them to differentiate themselves. We need to have the products to meet their needs."

As many of these technical applications are evolving, traditional customer/supplier relationships are also evolving into more of a working partnership. Theres now more emphasis on research and development and more customer involvement through every step of the process.

"Strong customer interaction is an enormous part of our business today and going forward," Rawson said. "We're working more closely with our existing and new customers than ever before to meet their needs and to identify and develop new opportunities. Our new line of spun meta-aramid yarns grew out of this increased customer interaction and to meet a specific need."

Clarke concurred: "Because of the specialized nature of our shaped 3-D products and how theyre ultimately being used, interaction with the customer throughout the development phase and beyond is essential."

Perhaps Bruner summarized this commitment to customer relationships best when he stated: "If the customer wants it, well figure out how to make it. Well do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, whether it takes a day or week or years. We dont want to give them any reason to look or go anywhere else."
T.E.A.M. Inc. manufactures woven and braided 2-D and 3-D f lat and net shape custom-engineered fabrics.

Challenges, Markets And Competition
Challenges abound in the technical textiles marketplace; some are expected because of the nature of the raw materials and technical applications, but others can only be described as challenging. "Service is an enormous part of our business today," Rawson said. "Were being challenged by our customer base to provide a broader technical product offering. Were seeing demand from smaller, diverse manufacturers looking for local sourcing and just-in-time delivery," Rawson added. "However, our biggest current challenge as a yarn supplier is to maintain margins. Its a constant battle because the cost of raw materials continually increases, but of course the weavers are constantly looking for a better price. In the past we may have taken some very low-margin business in order to maintain or create a customer relationship. We simply cant afford to do that anymore, so were now looking for new ways to service and add value for our customers. As a result, our future growth looks very positive."

"Demand is exceeding the availability of some technical yarns. The aramids in particular Nomex® and Kevlar® for example are difficult to get due to military needs and getting specific colors in low quantities from yarn producers is tricky," lamented Ibenas Tombuelt.

"A significant challenge to us has been finding highly trained, motivated and creative people to work in these areas," Bruner said. "We've had to start training our own because they just dont seem to be available."

Particularly challenging to many exploring new applications for technical textiles is the end-users lack of knowledge and familiarity with technical textiles. Clarke summarized this well by saying: "Technical textiles has become sort of a Pandora's box. Some of the technical industries, like the aerospace industry, had evolved to a certain comfort level where they had standardized materials, products and processes. Now were giving them new toys and more options, basically anything and everything in an engineered technical textile. While on one hand thats exciting, its also limiting in a way because sometimes its hard for them to accept conceptually. They may not have the wherewithal to implement a new technical concept because it is a conservative industry, lacks experience in the new textile technologies, or simply because no one wants to be the first to try it."

That said, Clarke sees these segments continuing to grow. "The comfort level with technical textiles and their composites is growing," he said. "The rate of growth is increasing for us in aerospace, marine and industrial applications, including sporting goods. Were seeing more of a shift from standard 2-D pre-pregs to more interest in engineered textile preforms that are designed, shaped and created for specific uses. Some traditional 2-D carbon fabric roll goods that used to be specialty are now becoming more of a commodity. Theyre basically spec products that a lot of producers can make. Our future growth will come from net shape 3-D woven materials for highly engineered composite applications. Increasingly, our customers are looking for a way to use more expensive raw materials efficiently, which is placing a higher value into the textile components in order to take labor out of the end processing and provide a better product."

"Our business continues to grow," Tombuelt said. "We've consciously made an effort to stay away from commodity products because we cant compete with the large manufacturers and imports. This has forced us to find niche markets, which are doing well. Our racing apparel (firesuit) products are continuing to grow, along with other industrial product applications where heat resistance, flammability and electric arc protection are important. Lightweight camo fabrics for the military will also continue to grow."

Bruner agreed. "Business is good. Each of the markets were in is doing well and looks to grow," he said. "We also continue to push forward towards new products. We've begun working with an environmental design consultancy to make more ecologically friendly products for the future. We want to work through the design chain and be able to take products from cradle through product and then back to cradle."

Looking To The Future
All indications are that the applications and markets for technical textiles in the United States and abroad will continue to evolve and grow. As current applications continue to validate the use of technical textiles, this will create more opportunities for even newer applications. This was summed up best by Rawson, who said: "We think the future looks bright. Technical textiles are here to stay, and the opportunities will continue to grow."

In an article published in 2002 in Textile World, Fritz Legler, an executive with Switzerland-based Sultex Ltd., a textile equipment producer, suggested that "the technical fabrics sector is the fastest growing and most dynamic in the textile industry" (See "Weaving On The Cutting Edge," TW, October 2002). Five years later, it appears that Legler's statement still rings true.

Editor's Note: Jim Kaufmann is president and CEO, and Sean Kroszner is project engineer of NovaComp Inc., a product design and development consultancy firm located in Willow Grove, Pa.
May/June 2007