In The Line Of Fire

August 17, 2005

nonwovens in the protective apparel market

When used in the protective apparel market, nonwovens have to put up with a lot. Whether they are being shot at, bombarded by chemicals or toasted by a raging fire, nonwoven materials involved in the protective apparel area have to be strong, lightweight, comfortable, durable and most of all impenetrable. After all, the material acts as a buffer between a hazard and a human life. Manufacturers of these nonwovens recognize the important role their fabrics are playing and are trying to develop the category to provide customers with comfortable clothing that can withstand hazardous working environments.

“Customers require lighter materials with a similar level of performance in order to improve comfort for the wearer,” explained Jacques Fourmeux, sales manager for Duflot Industrie, Beauvois-en-Cambresis, France. The company, which produces nonwovens for the thermal protection and ballistics markets, has catered to the comfort needs of its customers with new product offerings, such as its new 100% aramid perforated nonwoven for thermal protection applications that offers water vapor resistance. The fabric’s low value of vapor resistance allows perspiration to evaporate making the apparel more breathable and comfortable.

Freudenberg Nonwovens, Weinheim, Germany, also recognizes the importance of comfort in protective apparel with the launch of “Vilene Fiberblock,” a fire resistant spunlaced nonwoven that offers excellent heat blocking properties while being light and breathable. “The trend is going towards more comfortable and lightweight turnout gears with even higher protective properties,” said Jürgen Graf, key account manager, protective clothing for Freudenberg.

Comfort is also a customer demand within the ballistics area of the protective apparel market, according to Tony Centofanti, CEO of National Nonwovens, Easthampton, MA. The company manufactures needlepunched nonwovens for a variety of products in this area, including ballistic vests for military and police departments. “For the vests, our product is moldable, which means it will take shape,” Mr. Centofanti explained. “This becomes important because the female populations of police departments are increasing. Being able to mold the product to fit the bustline of a woman so it’s more comfortable for her to wear is becoming an important part of the vest making process. In this business you don’t want to make the vest uncomfortable because people will tend not to wear it.”

Crafting a lightweight product with projectile stopping power is another challenge being faced by protective apparel manufacturers. “With some of our materials, we are trying to go up to a higher protection level using the same basis weight so we don’t increase the weight or bulkiness,” Mr. Centofani added.

Even more important than comfort is effectiveness. “On an increasing basis, customers are demanding the knowledge that is associated with those products to understand what are they used for, to know what they protect against and to have access to data from specific testing. This kind of information is just as important as the product itself,” reported Terry Stuchlik, business manager of “Tyvek” for DuPont, Wilmington, DE. This type of information allows customers to make more informed decisions regarding the types of materials they purchase, especially with the amount of options currently available in the marketplace. “There are a lot of different options that people have when selecting nonwoven fabrics used in this market,” Mr. Stuchlik detailed. “Some fabrics have been extensively evaluated to determine how they perform in real life situations against various hazards, while others are simply perceived to be effective. In my mind, it’s becoming increasingly more important for producers to be willing to share the information, knowledge and data that supports the products. That’s because we’re protecting people’s lives and livelihoods. Not taking responsibility to make that information accessible to end users so that they can make educated decisions is, to me, a very large mistake.”

Sworn To Protect
The ability of nonwoven materials to be comfortable and effective has allowed them to compete with wovens and other materials in the protective apparel segment, which has grown to a $300 million market in North America. Industry experts expect this category to grow even larger on the heels of innovation and new application areas.

“Years ago all people had were reusable woven-based fabrics that were contaminated, washed and used again,” said Craig Woodward, senior vice president sales and marketing of Kappler North America for Kappler Protective Apparel and Fabrics, Guntersville, AL. “Research has clearly documented that some of that chemical contaminate actually leaches into the fabric matrix itself and therefore is potentially leaching out onto the other side so when a person puts the suit back on they are being contaminated,” Mr. Woodward documented. “The nonwoven fabrics introduced into the U.S. during the late 1980s literally changed the way that protection was done overnight. Today only a tiny fraction of chemical protection suits are reusable, with nonwoven-based laminates holding 90-95% of the market.”

In the ballistics area, nonwovens’ ability to withstand multiple close proximity shots gives them an advantage over wovens and knits in bullet-proof vests. “Woven or knitted fabrics cannot take multiple close proximity shots because once you break the yarns with the first shot, the material loses its stability and doesn’t protect anymore,” National Nonwovens’ Mr. Centofanti said. “The nonwoven we developed does not come apart if a user is shot more than once.”

Nonwoven-based protective garments are also finding increased application in the cleanroom area where woven applications have traditionally dominated. “If you’re making silicone disks, you don’t want a body in the cleanroom area without some type of protective garment,” said Beth Hohl, marketing and R&D manager for the safety division of Kimberly-Clark, Roswell, GA. “This is an area that we are really excited about for nonwovens. There has been some displacement of woven fabrics, yet we feel there are a lot more opportunities for nonwovens.”

Breathe With Me
In order for nonwovens to continue to compete against other types of materials, including wovens and knits, new product innovations must continuously be explored. One innovation receiving a lot of attention from both roll goods producers and converters in the protective apparel area is a breathable microporous film that can be laminated to a nonwoven substrate. While it is not new to nonwovens, breathable microporous film is finding new applications in this area.

BP Fabrics & Fibers Business Unit, Austell, GA, has reportedly been selling its “Aptra” breathable microporous film into the protective apparel market mainly for disposable applications for the last seven years. “Every year people are finding new applications for laminates that provide better barrier properties and are more cost-effective so we still see quite a bit of growth,” sales manager for films and nonwovens, Morris Collins, said.

Kappler also sees growth possibilities for its microporous film technology, which it began applying to protective apparel about 10 years ago, according to Mr. Woodward. “We didn’t invent the technology, we basically borrowed it from the diaper industry because microporous fabric technology was developed for use in baby diapers,” he stated. “The magic of microporous film is that it keeps moisture from going through on one side, but the other side allows body moisture vapor to go through so the person can stay dry. The technology has allowed this industry to provide a high level of protection, but still have a breathable garment and reduce the price point.” The technology, which was initially developed for blood and viral barrier purposes in the medical and healthcare markets, has changed during the last five or six years in the way the film and nonwoven are bonded together. “The newer technology places the microporous film on the nonwoven through an extrusion process so, instead of having a bi- or trilaminate product with distinct layers it is a more homogenous layer of fabric where you really can’t tell where the film starts and the nonwoven stops. You end up with a lightweight fabric with better performing barrier characteristics in some cases,” Mr. Woodward said.

K-C also uses microporous film technology for its protective apparel offerings into wet and chemical spray applications. “K-C holds a number of patents on microporous film laminates,” stated the company’s Ms. Hohl. “We’ve been able to take it from our diaper technology and successfully bring it into industrial protective clothing.” The laminate technology is also a blood-born pathogens barrier, making it suitable for use in crime scenes and other situations that could be potentially hazardous to someone’s health. “We’re into a lot of different areas and this is an area where we’ve been able to leverage some technology that had its origins in other K-C products, such as diapers and has really spread out to some other industries,” Ms. Hohl added. “It’s been able to take an industry one step forward.”

Commission converter W.L. Gore & Associates, Elkton, MD, uses nonwovens in its lamination process with an assortment of membranes for final fabrics that are sold into the protective garment industry, according to brand marketing strategist Patricia Fanty. For example, the company’s “Crosstech” moisture barrier membrane is laminated to a nonwoven to produce “Crosstech” glove inserts for the fire industry. “The Crosstech membrane along with the nonwoven allows breathability to occur while helping to reduce heat stress and increasing the thermal protection of the wearer,” Ms. Fanty said. Additionally, W.L. Gore makes “Windstopper” membranes, which are laminated to nonwovens to produce a durable windproof and breathable material. “The fabric blocks the wind but allows moisture vapor to transport away from the body to keep the wearer more comfortable,” Ms. Fanty added.

Built For Battle
Nonwovens manufacturers targeting the protective apparel market need to understand that what might be good for one application might not be good for another. Therefore making sure new products hold up to the stress required of protective garments can be somewhat of a challenge.

Mr. Centofanti of National Nonwovens pointed out that each section of the U.S. military has its own testing methods for protective apparel fabrics. “For example, in the Navy one of the things a manufacturer has to be conscious about is ‘Kevlar’s loss of strength when it gets wet. Any product that would be made out of a Kevlar-type fiber has to somehow be sealed so it does not get wet,” he detailed. “Additionally, fire regulations vary depending whether you’re on a boat, in an airplane or on the field.”

In addition to safety requirements, manufacturers must also be mindful of government regulations. “All protective clothing is regulated by an agency in some manner,” stated Nancy Pinkham, spokesperson for Tex Tech, Portland, ME. “These regulations impact the way products are made, tested and maintained. This, in turn, affects the marketing and pricing of the products.”

Freudenberg’s Mr. Graf emphasized the cost impact of regulations as new materials are developed that may replace older ones used within a multilayered construction. “The different government regulations are a considerable cost factor for garment manufacturers as new materials, developments and garment constructions need to be tested and certified,” he said. For example, each individual component of firefighter turnout gear as well as the full garment needs to be tested and certified. “If one individual component is changed, the complete gear then requires a new test and certification,” he added.

While regulations are abundant in the protective garment area, some manufacturers have taken the initiative to make improvements that are not mandated. According to Kappler’s Mr. Woodward, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific performance standards for most types of protective equipment, such as eyeglasses, gloves, shoes and boots but not for garments. “OSHA simply says companies need to provide ‘appropriate protection,’” he explained. “This is why you see contractors in this country doing asbestos abatement work in polypropylene coveralls that provide no protection. Because OSHA doesn’t have a standard that specifies what the protection level needs to be, these workers are not violating the law. There is also a tremendous amount of misuse with people being under-protected as well as unnecessarily over-protected, where they are wearing too much protection or something that is hotter than it needs to be because of the lack of a standard.”

These indiscrepancies have prompted members of the protective clothing industry to develop a protective clothing standard for the U.S., similar to the CE standards now used in Europe to raise the bar in providing better protection for workers, Mr. Woodward added. “We are trying to create a set of performance-based requirements that would match up to the CE standards but would also be consistent with a global safety standard for clothing that ISO is currently developing and attempting to pass,” he said.

Pieter Meijer, vice president marketing and sales for BBA Nonwovens France, Biesheim, France, said that most of his company’s customers are involved in some way with abiding by and helping to establish regulations both in the U.S. and Europe. “Our customers are actively involved in industry committees such as the Industrial Safety Equipment Association, ISO and CE to develop standards in both the U.S. and Europe,” he stated. “In the U.S., however, there is less involvement from governmental agencies. In Europe, all garments have to meet CE standards.”

The Art Of Protection
As new technologies surface, so will new hazards. Additionally, as the world evolves and becomes an increasingly harsh place to live, aspects of our society such as crime, war and terrorism are expected to either increase or stay consistent with today’s level. For these reasons, most nonwovens suppliers in the protective apparel industry see growth potential through new products and existing products that will need modification.

“Unfortunately with what we’ve seen happening with school shootings, in my opinion they’re just going to create more demand for protection,” Mr. Centofanti of National Nonwovens said. “I think you’re going to see more of it evolve as, unfortunately, the world is becoming a tougher place to live.”

BBA executives also predict growth for nonwovens within the protective apparel area, both overall and for specific products. “We expect to see continued growth in spunbond and laminates in the 7-8% range and we expect nonwovens to continue to play a large role in the protective garment industry with a growth rate of about 6% annually in the overall market,” Mr. Meijer said.

Some manufacturers also feel the growth of the protective apparel market will come from less penetrated global areas such as Asia and South America where few worker safety regulations are currently in place. “The marketplace for protective apparel in North America is mature and has been for a few years now,” DuPont’s Mr. Stuchlik stated. “The European market is beginning to become mature. Asia and South America are potential growth markets as they are not mature marketplaces by any means. However, there are challenges in these regions due to the lack of government safety regulations and the value, or rather lack of value, placed on protecting employees.”

Still other producers feel a great deal of growth for nonwovens will come in the regulatory area as new standards are being developed and adopted for many protection areas. Two examples of regulations that will impact the use of nonwovens in a positive way are the new National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) standard and a possible standard from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for protecting healthcare workers from blood-born pathogens, according to Kappler’s Mr. Woodward. NFPA 1994 is a standard for clothing that protects against warfare agents for domestic preparedness or antiterrorism activity. The garments and fabrics that will meet those standards will be nonwoven-based materials combined with different films, which will have a tremendous effect on the use of nonwovens over time. Additionally, nonwovens should benefit from a new standard for blood and viral protection expected to be issued by the FDA with the help of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI).

While most roll goods manufacturers are optimistic about the future growth of the protective clothing market, others warn that things can change in the blink of an eye. “Because of their wide range of uses, nonwovens will maintain marketshare in some areas and provide growth in others,” stated Ms. Pinkham of Tex Tech. “As with any technology, however, this picture can change radically when a new product or fiber enters the market.”

Still, most nonwovens producers view the protective apparel market as a haven for growth. “We’re going to see more people going toward disposable protective clothing as it’s a price point and a protection point,” concluded K-C’s Ms. Hohl. “If you think about working in a situation like mining or fiberglass, those are fields where you want to take those clothes and throw them out; you don’t want to bring them home and mix them with anything else because contamination is a real issue.”

Related Application:

Related Technology: