What spurs innovation? Does the kernel of a new idea spring forth fully formed from the brow of a genius, or does it gestate over a long, arduous path involving sweat and heavy lifting?
Maybe a bit of both, if you dig into the histories of new materials or processes. Often you will find that chance played as much a hand as hard work. Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the lightbulb, but only after thousands of failed attempts. Thankfully, he had the insight to know that the lightbulb required a system of power and distribution for it to be practical, and through lots of heavy lifting, he developed the systems that supported the lightbulb. Such was Edison’s influence that the lightbulb has come to be synonymous with “good ideas” or just ideas in general.
More recently, Silicon Valley has become famous for major technical innovations that began in the proverbial garage. (A popular tour in Palo Alto, California, includes a stop at the garage where Hewlett Packard was created.) For the specialty fabrics industry, several garage workshops and home kitchens are credited with incubating some early structural fabric innovations back in the late 1940s (Norm Seaman and what became Seaman Corp.’s Shelter-Rite® fabric) and in the early 1960s (Robert Gore and the invention of the expanded PTFE [polytetrafluoroethylene] process known as GORE-TEX®, and later Tenara®), to name only a few notable examples. (For a more complete history of our industry’s major advances, see the Specialty Fabric Review 100-year celebration issue, November 2015.)
Choice is the new black
As it is with consumer marketing, a proliferation of options and new functionalities are becoming the norm for outdoor structural fabrics as the business plan to future success. Even within the past five years, the industry has produced more new products that have multiple capabilities, opening up new possibilities for applications. Steve Fredrickson, sales manager for Florida-based Serge Ferrari North America, said it succinctly last year in his introduction to the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) 2016 Fabric Architecture Resource Guide: “As demand has driven innovation in most industries, fabric architecture has seen more of a partnership with the architectural community and fabric manufacturers to develop what’s next for specific projects and applications…. One reason is due to the flexibility of fabric manufacturers versus the steel and wood industries [in architecture]. With the ability to change formulas, weaves, coatings and other aspects, fabric lends itself to innovation.”
In a recent conversation, Fredrickson attributed the increase in new products to a combination of factors. “From my perspective in North America, it’s customer based, code based and energy based. I try to find out what happened when a project [looking for fabric] falls through—budget? product? client needs?—then I work to try and understand what we could have done to change that.”
These turning points can often lead to innovations, says Fredrickson, in product coatings or new product lines, such as Ferrari’s recently launched new version of a standard product line, its Précontraint (pre-stressed) vinyl-coated, PTFE-top-coated polyester architectural fabric 1002 S2, now with a new formulation (1002-2399) that has higher light transmission levels, an innovation driven by market demands.
Sources for inspiration
For the architectural fabrics market, we are seeing a profusion of new types of functionality (often suggested first from the clients of architects or builders and then passed along to fabricators and ultimately demanded of manufacturers), such as higher sustainability, increased energy efficiency, greater durability and strength-to-weight ratios, more translucency to promote daylighting, shape flexibility, self-cleaning and pollution resistance, and more color options.
For John Gant, director of research and development for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics LLC, Glen Raven, N.C., new materials are inspired by endless sources: “Inspiration might come from a product in a different market, such as outdoor apparel, or a problem that a customer describes to us, or from news in a research publication,” he says. Gant refers to Glen Raven’s most notable product, Sunbrella® solution-dyed acrylic fabric, as a case in point. “To stay at the forefront of design, Sunbrella continually finds inspiration from art trends around the world. We look for trends in styling and colors from numerous life exposures, innovations in production processes or a simple, new idea from friends. New products are then tested in the field for durability and in pilot studies to optimize the product.”
“Listening to requests from industry actors is the best way for us to develop new products,” says Françoise Fournier, market development director for Serge Ferrari. “We can also combine it with internal development based on our own technical ability to add on functionality to our material, or to suggest and promote new applications such as lightweight tensile facades.”
The big picture of what’s happening out in the world is often cited as a catalyst for new product innovation, according to Colin Touhey, cofounder and CEO of Pvilion in Brooklyn, N.Y., designers and manufacturers of flexible photovoltaic (PV) solar structures and products. Touhey says that once clients understand its advantages, they are often choosing fabric rather than other materials for large-span roofs. “It can span much larger spaces than any other material at a better cost-per-area ratio, plus it has a more sustainable footprint (versus metal or other rigid materials), and it is as durable as any other material choice.”
Touhey sees each project contributing to a positive feedback loop. “As more projects are incorporating fabric, more people see the results and begin to make the choice themselves, thus increasing the visibility and desirability of using fabric. We have seen a huge uptick in the use of fabric—for shade applications, for integrated technology applications, for dynamic building applications—over the past five years.”
Sometimes a new code requirement in a local market may push manufacturers to make improvements. Witness, for example, the demand of coastal communities in Florida and the West Coast for hurricane-proof construction leading to more restrictive code requirements and, in turn, more durable fabrics being manufactured.
“With the new IBC 2015 code [the International Building Code that all construction in North America must follow] requiring glass handrails to be laminated,” says Peter Katcha, director of North American sales for SEFAR Architecture in St. Petersburg, Fla., “the use of SEFAR VISION metal-coated fabric interlayer is a solution with many benefits to a design. This interlayer laminated product is a response to the challenge of glass handrail applications, which historically are in demand for multifamily and luxury condos, as well as hotels, across the country.”
Competition from other building material manufacturers can spur innovation, adds Fredrickson. “For instance, ETFE [ethylene tetrafluoroethylene] has been a trend since the Olympics in China; for the U.S. architectural community, that was ETFE’s ‘coming out party,’ so to speak. Since then, it has been specified for usage on quite a few high-profile projects. Clearly, there is a demand for this market to have high levels of natural light—which has led Ferrari to increase translucency in some of our standard-range products. Our Précontraint 1002 S2 now has a 1002-2399 version with higher levels of light transmission.”
Multifunctionality and multimarkets
Many fabric manufacturers are finding that adding capabilities to existing products can expand usage and open new markets. “Fabrics that can be marketed and installed in multiple applications have a higher value rating over single-application products,” says Chris Duerk, senior vice president for Sattler Global, headquartered in Austria. Multifunctionality in fabrics has many benefits, according to Duerk, including “less inventory investment and a higher cash flow; cross-selling opportunities for higher revenue per sales call; consistent performance attributes; higher fabric brand value and go-to market strategies.” Over the next five years, says Duerk, with fabrics that serve multiple functions, companies can reduce their sales call expenses and increase their per-sale margin by focusing on selling few SKUs.
Duerk points to Sattler’s Outdura® Casual Furniture fabrics as a case in point for added functionality. “One fabric can be sold across multiple markets by being applied to indoor and outdoor upholstery applications and on umbrellas. Sattler awning and marine fabrics can be applied on commercial and residential awnings, boat covers and tops, golf cart covers and grill covers.”
For architectural use, Gant would agree with Duerk that fabrics that sport more than one capability are in greater demand. “Architects and designers are looking for new ways to create built environments in harmony with nature’s forces,” says Gant. “Shade structures are increasingly beginning the design conversation and providing more options to create unexpected outdoor environments. Sunbrella Contour was created as we identified limitations of the traditional shade sail fabrics, which came from the horticultural industry for greenhouses. We wanted to create something that provided better shade for consumers which also improved UV protection and provided beautiful fabrics. We realized we had an opportunity, and the ability, to create a truly premium, high-performance shade sail fabric.”
Just as Serge Ferrari has done, Glen Raven has discovered new functionality by looking within its own technical capabilities. “Sunbrella’s process is rooted in collaborative work, with dozens of people involved throughout,” says Gant. “New, innovative ideas are first shared and discussed; then solutions and variations are deliberated. Next, fabric prototypes are created and tested while numerous production processes are considered. Once production is finalized, our supply chain partners help to complete the development process with raw material supply and with delivery to the market.”
Finding the new trends
Many of the experts consulted for this article agree that keeping tabs on the world market for fabrics is a must, with ideas sometimes coming from the most unlikely or mundane places—from workaday requirements to advanced research laboratories.
Duerk sees cleanability in upholstery fabrics as a growing demand: “Solution-dyed acrylic fabrics are bleach cleanable, other piece-dyed goods are not.” As Fredrickson said in IFAI’s 2016 Fabric Architecture Resource Guide, “In the past few years alone, the industry has seen the creation of molecular chains on fabric surface treatments (to provide higher performance value), clear films that span stadium roofs, acrylic fibers woven differently to create mesh (to promote shade and airflow), and mesh panels that wrap entire facilities.”
Fournier points out that ideas can also come from technical working groups at international meetings such as “the Structural Membranes [the VIII International Conference on Textile Composites and Inflatable Structures, Structural Membranes 2017] taking place in Munich next October, which is also an interesting meeting point with the academic world and Ph.D. students who work in-depth on specific subjects.”
“A hot topic that excites me,” says Touhey, “is the integration of electronics into fabrics. Not just PV cells, but screens, wearable technologies and other trending capabilities, many of which are still a bit in the future before they become standard. This has come about because of the cross-pollination of ideas across industries: the fashion industry, plus the electronics industry, plus the fabrics industry—all are contributing to newer and greater ideas and products. Insiders are talking to outsiders and hatching new concepts and products that benefit everyone.”
The consensus seems to be that the best way forward is to keep open to new ideas from every opportunity that presents itself, whether out of ongoing investigations, good sense—or necessity.
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is a consultant to architects and designers, and a regular contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review, Advanced Textiles Source and Fabric Architecture.