Decades of expertise and a deep understanding of the science of a flame go into creating new arc rated (AR) and flame resistant (FR) fabrics. We sat down with Drew Child, Director of Technology and Program Director for Milliken’s Uniform and Protective Fabrics Business, to discover more about the process behind developing new AR/FR textiles for cutting-edge personal protective equipment (PPE) for the electric utilities, and oil and gas industries.
Westex by Milliken: Tell us about your current position.
Drew Child: I am currently the Director of Technology and the Program Director for the Uniform and Protective business which is a business unit within the Performance and Protective Textiles Division at Milliken. In my position as the Director of Technology I work to discover, develop, evaluate, and implement new technologies to see how they can add value to the protective textile market. I’ve been in this position for about ten years. On any given day, I am reviewing test results, working on next steps for projects based on those results, and pushing to solve technical issues. These are the most rewarding tasks because I like seeing a problem and seeking a solution to it. Additionally, I answer a variety of customer and technical questions and try to decode the technology behind our products.
In my role as a Program Director, I focus on developing processes that ensure the development team is working on the most impactful projects and that they are progressing properly. This includes developing and refining processes and templates that help us track and prioritize our product developments.
WBM: How do FR technologies work?
DC: There are three FR technologies used for protective apparel: High temperature fibers, solid-state or char-forming agents, and fuel-activated or radical scavengers agents. High temperature fibers are thermally stable fibers that can withstand very high temperatures without breaking down. Because these fibers do not degrade when exposed to flash fires, the fire is starved of fuel. Solid-state, or char-forming, technology is another way to limit the fuel for a fire. These fabrics have been chemically engineered with a phosphorous-based FR agent. When the engineered fibers are exposed to a flame or heat, a hard char forms on the surface and eliminates the fuel the fire needs to propagate. This can be applied to many fabrics, including cotton, and maintains the original look and feel of the fabric for more comfort. When fuel activated technology, or radical scavengers, come in contact with a flame, the scavengers are released from the fabric. Once they are vaporized, they help to disrupt the chemical reaction of combustion, and as a result, snuff out the flame.
Milliken is one of the only FR textile manufacturers with access to all three technologies, which allows us to develop really interesting and groundbreaking FR fabrics that meet specific needs, and optimize properties such as fabric weight, comfort, durability, or elasticity.
WBM: Where do new ideas for new FR technologies come from?
DC: Ideas for new FR technologies and products come from everywhere. Sometimes it comes from a scientific breakthrough that could solve an important problem in the industry. Many times, it spurs from identifying a problem and developing something from there, or it can be from noticing a gap or underdeveloped product in the current market. Ideas also come from our sales team, or even people who are not directly involved in our industry. Everyone has good ideas regardless of what industry they work in, and my team and I evaluate them all to determine which concepts should move forward. The idea for our new Westex® DH performance FR fabric, for example, came from many conversations with our customers who were concerned about workers suffering from heat stress while wearing protective garments, and the need for lightweight, comfortable fabrics that do not compromise safety performance.
WBM: What steps do you go through when developing new FR technologies?
DC: The new product development team first starts with the question: “What problem would this new product solve?” We then make assumptions concerning the relevance of the problem, the number of people who would be affected, and our ability to solve the problem. This allows us to think critically about the opportunity and determine if it should be pursued and the relative importance of the project.
After we define the problem, we then determine the requirements for the technology and begin product prototyping. If we believe that a solution is both feasible and desirable, we move into the hard work of trialing and testing multiple iterations to arrive at a final product. Finally, the product is put through extensive testing to ensure that it not only meets all of the market requirements, but that we also manufacture the product consistently time and time again.
WBM: You mentioned product testing, tell us more about the tests you conduct.
DC: Safety is the most important factor when developing products. We ensure that each product undergoes vigorous testing during development, both internally and externally, to not only be compliant with industry standards against potential hazards, but also that we are capable to meet or exceed these standards on every lot we produce. The more innovative a technology is, the more testing it goes through to ensure it meets industry standards. We also test for sustainability, looking at the environmental effects the product may have on air and water resources. Our goal is to create a product that is safe for people and the world at large.
To hear more from Drew Child, visit Westex booth # 5735 at NSC Congress & Expo in San Diego September 9 – 11.