Let’s assume that you are in search of a material solution for a particular product. It doesn’t need to be rocket science, just the right technology for the job. However, your current suppliers can’t offer anything that meets the challenge. Do you have to resort to R&D to develop something new? Not necessarily. Chances are, the solution you are looking for is already out there, but it has solved a similar problem in an industry so different from yours that neither you (nor your suppliers) would ever come across it. Find that solution and you have saved yourself a considerable amount of R&D time and money. So how and where do you start looking?Materials can be found from industries as diverse as pharmaceutical packaging, military ballistics, architecture and, of course, industrial and technical textiles, as solutions for existing consumer and product design problems. In the specific case of the technical textile industry, the area of textile development has evolved greatly, initially finding solutions for very specific industrial needs that have, in turn, found use in much more creative fields.
Specific examples include developments in the areas of geo-membranes, 3-D textiles and E-textiles:
The often-decorative patterns used in the weaving of geo-membranes have interested creative designers for some time. The convoluted woven and non-woven shapes necessary for soil containment meshes have lent their forms to a number of fabrics now used in high performance sports apparel. They have also been successfully used in their un-altered states for products such as placemats and tabletop covers. One example is a turf reinforcement mat for re-vegetation management: 100 percent polyvinyl chloride (PVC) monofilaments are thermally welded together in a random configuration to create mats that guard seed and soil from wind, rain, storm and other environmental forces. The mats have excellent resistance to UV degradation, are unaffected by most agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides) as well as a wide pH range. The very low cost and ease of production of these forms almost guarantees their use for other interesting interior design applications.
New knitting techniques and post weave forming have resulted in fabrics that now demonstrate structure and depth. These 3-D textiles have transcended the idea of a flat, flexible material to create rigid, voluminous structures that can cushion, support and filter. One now very widely used technology is the “spacer fabric,” a dimensional textile created by a 5-axis knitting machine that manufactures knitted preformed shapes with a wide range of different profiles (e.g., seat cushions, wedge-shaped, L-profiles, arched profiles), and cross sections that closely approximate the final required contour with a base fabric spacing up to six inches (150 mm). Yarn material and denier determines the flexibility and compressibility of the resulting textile, with applications in the seating, mattress, and most noticeably, the sneaker industries (check out your new balance or Nikes – the open mesh at the front is a 3-D spacer textile) These new constructions remove the need for laminated textile and foam layers and have also seen application in automotive seating.
The post forming of woven and knitted textiles using rollers has also created structures that have found favor in the design of consumer products. One of these processes, developed by a German company, enables the production of a two dimensional substrate into a three dimensional product. This technology molds woven textiles of different types with 3-D designs such as nipples, ridges and diamond patterns. It creates a unique three-dimensional design that gives lightweight, virtually transparent fabrics increased strength, even under considerable weight and pressure. The textiles are water and air permeable and when distorted or compressed temporarily, maintain almost perfect memory and return to their original shape repeatedly. This process can improve the performance of products in many applications including outdoor gear, bedding, medical, filtration, and household cleaning products.
As with all areas of material and product development for consumers, there has been a desire to create added functionality and interactivity into woven materials. Just as we now have luxury cars that know who we are (and unlock and adjust seats accordingly), fabrics can now respond to a human touch, just like a keyboard. These electronic textiles or “E-textiles” translate a physical touch to a digital output. One example of this type of textile has been most recently used as an i-pod controller for a backpack. These textiles comprise a five-layer construction; the top and bottom layers are carbon conductive fabrics with a partially conductive central fabric, separated from the top and bottom layers by insulating textiles. When the top surface is touched by finger, stylus or other solid object this results in an output that can measure movement (on an x-y axis), gesture and intensity of pressure. The textile is washable and may also be made waterproof, allowing it to be integrated into products. The sensing technology is also able to monitor bending and stretching, as well as moisture levels. Current applications for this technology are wearable computers, fabric keyboards, flexible personal communication devices and upholstery-mounted sensors.
Fiber optics, traditionally the carriers of information for your cable TV have also been incorporated into woven textiles, but currently only to channel light. These light-emitting fabrics, used by rail and road workers for safety have also found applications in decorative costumes and upholstery for furniture. This process is also being considered as a way of transferring data within textile structures.
A further example of this type of “cross fertilization’ between industrial materials and the design world can be found in the sourcing of materials for a certain well known sneaker brand. To please devotees of their Nike Air Jordan™ line of footwear, Nike created an urban sports shoe that mixed street-savvy with high-tech. To stay ahead of the game, Nike engaged Material ConneXion’s library in a consulting project and found an unlikely winner: a monofilament sleeving normally used as a protective covering of cables. The unique properties of the sleeving’s braid allowed it to flex without stretching permanently and to hug the wearer’s foot, thus eliminating the need for laces. It was available in a dark gray color reminiscent of wet black top. The project has proven extremely successful: to date, over five million pairs of shoes have been sold.
These are just a few of the ways companies can find innovative ways to tackle new projects. The answer may not be at your fingertips, but is still within your grasp.
George M. Beylerian was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is a respected name in the industry having worked in many capacities, including Creative Director for the Steelcase Design Partnership. Beylerian founded Material ConneXion®.
Vice President of the Library and Materials Research, Dr. Andrew Dent directs research into innovative products and processes. Prior to joining Material ConneXion, Dr. Dent held a number of research positions; in particular, one at Rolls Royce PLC, where he specialized in turbine blades for the present generation of jet engines.
Material ConneXion is headquartered in New York City at 127 West 25th Street, with offices in Bangkok, Thailand, Cologne, Germany and Milan, Italy. It provides architects, engineers, industrial and interior designers with information, inspiration and innovation regarding new materials from a broad range of industries. Visit: www.materialconnexion.com.