Feature

The Bold New World of High-Tech Fabrics

IFAI supplies the info-network that helps its member companies navigate a big, complex industry

By Lynn Ascrizzi

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If someone asked you to make a list of every type of fabric you could think of -natural or synthetic, traditional or industrial – how many could you actually name?  I gave myself that challenge recently, and here’s what I came up with:

OK — cotton, linen, wool, nylon, rayon, silk, angora, cashmere, acrylic, polyester, vinyl and . . . ummm. Oh, right! I almost forgot hemp (the kind used to make rope and fabrics) and acetate, made from wood fiber cellulose. Then there’s bamboo, one of the world’s most sustainable materials, now widely used to make socks, sweaters and other apparel.

And, of course, we can’t forget leather and synthetic leather, such as Biothane®, made from PVC coated polyester. Although technically not a fabric, leather is used to fabricate things, and natural leather was the first fabric our ancestors used to cover their own hides, fig leaves notwithstanding.

But, did you know that low-grade, micronaire cotton works great for sopping up oil spills? (And, it’s biodegradable.) Or, that safety apparel for workers has moved way beyond traditional fire-and-flame retardant materials?

In fact, a bold new world of technological wizardry is emerging from the complex realm of industrial fabrics. For example, super-innovative, personal protective equipment (PPE) is being developed and manufactured for welders, firefighters, military personnel, oil, gas and electrical workers and the like — high-tech stuff that can protect users from heat surges, cuts, falls, chemical contamination, blasts, explosions, radiation exposure and other on-the-job hazards.

I learned all of this after checking out the not-for-profit trade organization, Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). The member-driven, member-owned association is the largest textile organization in the world. In existence for 104 years, it invests more than $8 million annually to advance the industry and to support member companies, according to their website (www.ifai.com).

Although the association’s main focus is on synthetic industrial textiles like polyesters and polyethylene, it also includes the leather industry according to IFAI president and CEO, Mary Hennessy.

“Our members use leather as well.  Leather is sometimes used in the marine industry, in upholstery, in automotive and in motorcycle and airplane seats. There is that crossover. We share some interests with the leather industry, especially in equipment and accessories. Shop Talk! readers and our members are generally small businesses. They make custom products and use equipment like heavy-duty sewing machines and threads, grommets and grommeting machines,” Hennessy said.

The association, which has 60 employees, also hosts a number of trade shows, such as marine and tent shows. Their big show is the annual IFAI EXPO, which was held last year on Oct. 18 – 21, in Charlotte, N.C. The event had hundreds of exhibits on display and included special attractions, such as a private collection of 600 antique sewing machines dating from the early 1850s to early 1940s. In marked contrast were the more than 415 different company displays of specialty fabrics, from ultra-modern synthetic textiles to shade and weather protection products, like awnings and canopies — and much more.

IFAI has 16 divisions, some of which include Advanced Textiles, Awnings, Equipment, Fabric Graphics, Fabric Structure, Maker’s, Marine and Military. Divisions offer seminars, workshops, educational programs, conferences, publications, marketing tools, standards of development and other industry news and information.

“What our job here is, is to try to make sure that whatever they’re (member companies) doing, it’s successful . . . we do whatever we can do to make their business more profitable. No one else is trying to provide the info that IFAI offers,” Hennessey said.

IFAI’s flagship magazine, Specialty Fabrics Review, has been in print since 1915.  February and March issues are dedicated to informative, state-of-the-industry articles, which cover a total of 11 markets. There’s also their twice-monthly e-newsletter and Buyer’s Guides designed to help members source products and services.

Advanced Textile Source, an online only publication and website, covers advanced textile markets and information on research and technology for fibers, yarns, fabric suppliers and end-product manufacturers. Other publications include Marine Fabricator, InTents, Geosynthetics and Fabric Architecture. For more information: http://www.ifai.com/publications/

 An added service is the IFAI Small Business Center, which offers members advice and articles on how to build their businesses, increase revenue, get the basics on investing and personal finance, grow their staff and much more.

Altogether, their in-depth information aims to help industrial fabric related businesses to stay on top of the latest advances in fire-retardant fabrics, fabric protectants, sewing machine technology, industrial fabric welding solutions and the like. And, companies can get updates about textile markets, equipment suppliers and textile storage solutions.

Additionally, members can network with other members in their market niche and focus on the growth of their industry. IFAI marketing communications manager, Jeff Pappas, said, “It’s a large undertaking. Our purpose is to help all our members grow, diversify and find new markets. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

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DOOR-OPENING SOLUTIONS

The IFAI network also helps businesses find creative solutions for simple to complex technical problems. “For members, we have a service called Info Central,” said IFAI market research manager Jeff Rasmussen. “What that does is open the door. It gives you access to 1,500 members to tap on the shoulder, if you’ve got questions.

“A member might be looking for a particular fabric or for a special application for it,” he added. “He or she may want to know more about it and who might have it. So, we send out an email blast to those contacts that fit a member’s question, and we put that member’s contact info into the email. People are always looking for a fabric, particularly small players. A lot of times, they get stuck and need to reach out.”

For example, one IFAI member (whose query ran in a past issue of Specialty Fabrics Review) was looking for a way to trace or digitize patterns super-fast on leather and fabric, and at the same time, reduce waste. The suggested answer was SiliconEye Machine Vision Software (http://www.aeronaut.org/siliconeye.html), which enables operators to trace or digitize even the most complex patterns in a flash – and do it cheaper than other image capture and pattern recognition systems.

 The system, manufactured by Aeronaut Automation, works with off-the-shelf digital SLR cameras and lenses. It “can radically improve production workflow on patterned fabrics, digitally printed fabrics, packaging and display materials and pre-printed board, leather hides, paper and card patterns or anywhere you want to accurately and quickly align a pattern onto a piece of material on the cutting table,” according to the magazine.

Or, how about a barefoot shoe? Swiss Barefoot Company of Landschlacht, Switzerland has come up with protective footwear called “Free Your Feet,” according to a Specialty Fabrics Review news clip. The footwear is designed for folks who like to body board or surf, rock climb, trail run or play volleyball in their bare feet, but who want to avoid the “ouch” that comes with that bare-foot pleasure. The high-tech footwear uses Dyneema®, a highly abrasion-resistant material that is as thin as microfiber and can be woven into a soft and silky fabric that stands up to cuts, moisture, UV light and chemicals.

Made by DSM Dyneema, a Netherlands-based company, the fiber is reportedly 15 times stronger than steel, and is used in ropes and cables to moor oilrigs and sail ships, as well as in bullet-resistant armor for police and military personnel, according to IFAI info. For more about the world’s most minimal footwear, visit www.fyf.io.

A lot of IFAI information is available to non-members, for instance, in magazine archives posted online. But in the future, members will be privy to more exclusive information. “We’ve just redeveloped our database and website, developing a more member-only section. Behind that wall will be a lot more robust information for members,” Hennessy said.

BOOSTING THE BOTTOM LINE

Another business that has benefitted from its association with IFAI, is Keyston Bros., a wholesale distributor of industrial fabrics, based in Roswell, Ga. The company has 325 employees and markets 14 different brands of fabrics and textiles, including vinyl and leather. Their diverse and wide array of inventory is used in awnings, outdoor seating, autos, boats (marine) and contract/hospitality furniture, used in places like hotels and restaurant chains. The company also offers upholstery supplies including sewing needles and pins, hand tools, decorative nails, piping cord, and staple guns (http://www.keystonbros.com/).

Dennis Bueker, national sales manager for Keyston Bros., has been with the company for 5 ½ years. “When I was hired, I recommended that they become IFAI members. For 30 years, I’ve been an IFAI member with two other companies and attended their trade shows. I feel strongly about the organization. It’s the number one place for fabricators to find out about product info and to network with fabric manufacturers and suppliers.”

Last year, Keyston Bros. marked its sixth IFAI EXPO. “When we first started out, we had a small booth. Now, we have a larger booth. We needed a bigger display. The EXPO has put our company name in front of folks who didn’t know us before,” he said.

The EXPO does more than give you a bunch of “hellos and handshakes,” he said. It boosted the company’s bottom line. “We’ve found a tremendous amount of new customers over the past five years — hundreds of new customers. We have a lot of traffic; a lot of people come to our booth.” By “hundreds of new customers,” he meant actual customers, not just new leads. “It helped us increase our sales,” he said.

Because of Bueker’s long-term experience with IFAI, he gets to see a lot of friends in the industry. “We kindle old relationships; we see old and new faces.  We’re also listed in the IFAI Buyers Guide Review. It’s another way we use their services and networking opportunities,” he said.

“We firmly believe in the association. This is my second term on the IFAI board,” he said of the voluntary position. “Not only are we getting stronger sales, but we serve the association.”


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FABRIC INDUSTRY TRENDS

IFAI is largely supported by its membership, the EXPO and other shows and their magazines. Fee-based research makes up about 1-2% of their support.

“Research projects can run from $20,000 to $40,000, depending upon the scope of the work,” said market research manager Jeff Rasmussen, who spends a lot of time analyzing specialty fabric markets. He looks at the businesses that make up that industry…how big they are, who the players are, and how hot are its markets.

“Business people want to know how they stack up with the rest of the competition — their number of employees, how fast they’re growing, and if they’re in the right or wrong market. If a company is trying to grow and wants to get a bank loan, they have to make their case, so they better know their market,” he said. “It’s what we’re all about. Helping to shore up the players within the industry.”

Jeff also provided some industrial fabric trends:

Smart Fabrics: E-textiles, called smart fabrics, have been growing exponentially — fabrics embedded with digital components or electronic devices that react to impact and other sensory data, such as a person’s heart or respiratory rates, or to extreme heat and radiation.

“At first, smart fabrics were kind of a yawn,” he said. “Not enough people were getting behind it. But in the last few years, it’s been getting some traction. Millennials love technology. They warm up to smart fabrics more.”

Smart fabrics are being used for aesthetic purposes, in garments that light up and change color, or for performance-enhancing fabrics, which are of great interest to the extreme sports and military industries. For example, high-tensile strength Kevlar®, a synthetic smart fiber, is five times stronger than steel and is widely used in bicycle tires, racing sails, ropes, Smartphones, building construction and body armor, like bullet-resistant vests.

“There used to be 30 layers of Kevlar® fabric in a vest. They’ve cut it down to 10 or 11 layers by putting thickening fluid in the layers, like a sandwich, that disperses the energy of the bullet on impact, so it doesn’t keep penetrating. This made the vests a lot lighter. Researchers are also trying to introduce cooling for the wearer, as the vests can be hot to wear. That’s why some people don’t wear them — they’re uncomfortable. They’re trying to improve that,” he said.

Medical Fabrics: “The Ebola crisis helped to push personal protective equipment (PPE) research. Problems create solutions,” he said. Today, healthcare industrial fabrics, such as those made of thermoplastic composites, are designed with antimicrobial and antistatic properties; they are stain, odor and flame-resistant.

Tents: “It’s a big market. Tents are used for camping, weddings and other big tent events. They need to be fire-resistant and able to withstand wind load. If a wind is 60 to 70 mph, that’s hard for a tent to withstand.”

Another tent manufacturing problem is leaking seams. Researchers are using nanotechnology built into the seams to repel water. He said, “Natick (The Natick Laboratory Army Research, Development and Engineering Center) in Natick, Mass., is looking into developing that area. The military would also like to have lighting built into tents, which involves the use of photovoltaics. They’re working on it.”

“The military is an incubator for a lot of consumer markets,” he added. “They have the money for the R&D. Smaller companies don’t have the resources to develop products on their own. But, they can form relationships with companies and institutions that do.”

U.S. Manufacturers: “They’ve really been stepping up to the plate with innovation. A lot of manufacturers who went overseas have started to come back, because they’re closer to customers and they can compete. Innovation and manufacturing in U.S. mills have become better. They can produce goods much faster and manipulate it to become more customized. Their equipment has become very good.”


About the IFAI

The Industrial Fabric Association International (IFAI) was launched Sept. 12, 1912, when 14 manufacturers of canvas and awnings met at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado and formed the National Tent & Awning Association. Today, IFAI is a not-for-profit, member-driven and member-owned, trade association.

 The association provides industry news and information via trade magazines, digital publications and buyer’s guides and provides education and advocacy on behalf of its roughly 1,500 member companies, located in 54 countries. Some information is available to all online; other services and info are offered exclusively to members.

Annual IFAI membership costs vary, depending upon the size of the company. For a small business with an annual growth revenue under $500,000, the fee is $345; if its revenue is $500,000 to $1 million, the fee is $690; $1 to $5 million, $1,015; $5 to $10 million, $1,400; $10 million to $15 million, $1,800; more than $15 million, about $2,200.

IFAI ranks in the top 10% of the thousands of U.S. trade associations in membership size, operating budget and professional size. The association sponsors IFAI EXPO, the largest industry trade show in the Americas. IFAI invests all profits generated by magazines, websites and trade shows to advance the industry and member companies.

CONTACTS

Industrial Fabrics Association International

IFAI Headquarters:

1801 County Road B W
Roseville, MN 55113-4061
Phone: (651)222-2508 or 800 225- 4324
Fax: (651) 631-9334

www.ifai.com

generalinfo@ifai.com

 

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