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The issue of testing

Features | May 6, 2016 | By:

Thermetrics flame manikin and chamber were deployed at Donghua University in Shanghai. The company manufactures a range of biophysical instrumentation systems that can measure temperature, sweat and flame retardancy. Photo: Thermetrics.
Thermetrics flame manikin and chamber were deployed at Donghua University in Shanghai. The company manufactures a range of biophysical instrumentation systems that can measure temperature, sweat and flame retardancy. Photo: Thermetrics.

As questions about testing, certification and standards persist, the testing market grows.

The market for textile testing, inspection and certification is expected to reach more than $7 billion by 2020, according to a report published by MarketsandMarkets. There has been much debate on the need for standardization in textile accreditation, and rightly so. Testing is part of the discussion on standardization; however, the issues surrounding textile testing merit consideration in their own right.

The complexity of testing evident even within a single application area, the importance of cost and the impact of testing on innovation all are important issues to examine. Key figures in the industry can offer insight into what the future may bring, as well as what needs to be done to make the current system of textile testing better, more efficient, more fair and more cost effective.

Doing the numbers

To get a sense of the scale and complexity of testing required, let’s look at one material type: nonwovens. The Association of the Nonwovens Fabrics Industry, also known as INDA, lists 290 distinct categories of nonwovens and identifies 37 different applications for the material in cars alone, where they are used to perform a range of tasks such as filtration, backing upholstery, silencing, housing loudspeakers, insulating and reinforcing tires.

The industry has 21 categories of testing with more than 100 subcategories. The American INDA and its European counterparts European Disposables and Nonwovens Association (EDANA) have produced the Nonwovens Standard Procedures (2015) handbook that offers “harmonized industry language across USA and Europe.” However, one set of criteria does not automatically fit all, and product manufacturers often have criteria that differ significantly.

SGS Offices and Labs, headquartered in Switzerland, provide material testing to meet the specification of individual car manufacturers such as Volkswagen Audi, Ford and Toyota. Markets, demographics and consumer expectation all have a role to play in setting these requirements.

Olivier Vermeersch, vice president, NSERC industrial chair on Innovative Technical Textiles at CTT Group in Montreal, Ontario, Canada, undertakes 1,000 tests on textiles. He attributes the need for so many to a number of factors, such as the differences in evaluation performance depending on the market and the range of standard test procedures for fabric performance that emerge from the standardization bodies. With new testing processes implemented monthly and CTT Group’s direct involvement in developing new tests with ASTM, ISO, CGSB and CSA, the cost can be significant.

“We do calibration of every piece of equipment according to an approved calibration calendar (including calibration by third parties),” says Vermeersch, who describes how the company undertakes “verification every morning and people are trained accordingly. There is an external audit from five organizations every year in addition to the internal audit.”

Time and money

This is an expensive and time-consuming process for the testing companies and for the manufacturers using them. Depending on the application, industry, client, manufacturer and other factors, the cost can be shared or borne by one party.

As the time taken and the cost increases, this issue is more frequently raised before testing is undertaken—or even earlier, as the fabric is being developed. Vermeersch gives a recent example to illustrate the time, and by association the cost, involved in bringing a new product to market.

“I was involved in a product development meeting with a company from Italy, which would develop a specific product including a heated textile product we developed and patented with a Quebec company,” he says. “We did a lot of work and evaluation on this product in past years, but the result of that meeting was the need to test and characterize new properties that need to be evaluated in the context of application of the product, European regulations and product development.”

The British manufacturer Palmhive Technical Textiles Ltd. undertakes much of its own testing internally to meet the relevant standards of the British Standard Institution (BSI). Additional tests are performed externally, according to Mike Shearman, head of sales and business development, to “meet the requirements of different global and demographic markets to other international standards as required—for example, American standards (ANSI, ASTM, AATCC), Italian standards (UNI), German standards (DIN), [and] French (NF).”

The challenges are many, says Shearman. “As testing standards are continually being reviewed and updated, and as testing equipment becomes more advanced and market requirements more stringent, the main challenge is probably the cost of keeping up with the changes in standards and technology.”

Do all manufacturers undertake the necessary tests? And if not, what happens? At one end of the spectrum there are companies that have built their reputations and their brands on rigorous testing.

W.L. Gore and Associates Inc. is an example of this, offering a GUARANTEED TO KEEP YOU DRY® Promise to the consumer. They perform more than 100 tests on the fabric alone, ranging from rain chamber to comfort, martindale (a durability test), crumple and stretch. Some are mechanical and others are performed in real-world weather and wear conditions.

At the other end of the spectrum, there have been industry problems, particularly at the low end of the market, with manufacturers producing fabric and finished textile goods for brands and using banned chemicals to enable them to cut the price. On occasions when these are discovered, a shipment is confiscated but this does not act as a strong disincentive and is merely seen as a cost of doing business. (See “Policing infringements,” p.XX.)

Controlling the variables

Looking to the future in textile testing, there is general agreement that regulations will increase and this will impact the industry. Louise Davies, sales technologist at Heathcoat Fabrics Ltd., says, “One of the challenges for us is the diversity of testing required by our customers as we produce such a wide range of fabrics in so many different markets—automotive, aerospace, military, health care and apparel.”

Like Palmhive and many other companies, Heathcoat Fabrics undertakes some testing internally but different markets, specific customer demands and geographical locations mean that additional tests sometimes need to be carried out externally. Andrew Dent, vice president, library and materials research, at Material ConneXion, a global materials innovation company, does not see testing as a barrier to innovation, but rather as an influence on the way that it happens.

“The sensible companies are the ones that are developing new materials with a more specific application in mind,” says Dent.

He sees two main approaches typified by two types of companies, DuPont and Bayer. He sees DuPont as driven by an application or a problem that has been posed by a customer. This type of company becomes highly focused and solution driven. He sees Bayer as finding something that is interesting to the company and then developing the material or product from there.

The cost in time and money for testing is increasingly influencing the decision by many manufacturers to be market driven in their research and development. This is not curbing innovation; rather, it is directing it.

Dent also sees a trend toward testing the finished product, though often this is in addition to individual material testing. Vermeersch agrees with this viewpoint, particularly in the case of clothing where mannequins are used for testing for thermophysiological comfort, flammability or flash-fire protection and extreme weather protection. He sees the overall design and combination of materials as having a significant impact on the final performance.

Dent highlights an additional reason for this: liability. An increasing number of design clients are undertaking their own tests because they want to be sure that the material and product meet all requirements. From Dent’s perspective, “It is based on a concern that if something goes wrong it will not be the textile manufacturer that has to deal with the public relations backlash, but the client, particularly if they are high profile.”

Supply chain management, currently under scrutiny from a sustainable and ethical perspective, is also an important issue in textile testing and accountability. Brands strive for transparency, but many admit that they do not always know when part of their product has been subcontracted. Finding out through a customer problem or media revelation is often the first time they become aware of it, when much of the damage has been done.

Consumer driven

Ultimately, the consumer will drive the future of textile testing. No one wants to be sold a product that fails, does not last or causes harm—even if the price is low. The consumer and the specifier are acquiring greater knowledge and being more demanding as a result.

Davies gives the example of a new flarefree brand that Heathcoat has launched in response to market concern over the current FR standard for children’s costumes. She believes that the standard will be reviewed and a more stringent FR requirement introduced that will extend to all clothing, not just dress-up costumes.

Dent points to the luxury brand market in Europe as an example of a customer that is knowledgeable about what it is buying and demanding of that heritage, of which is an integral part of it. Where and how the products are produced is as important as the use of chemicals and the environmental impact. The U.S. has seen the same thing happen in sportswear over the last decade.

It is not possible for an organization like the FDA (or its equivalent anywhere in the world) to properly test and take action against the manufacturers of fabrics that fail in testing. The complexity of manufacturing and movement across borders through subcontractors makes this impossible.

In the end, the customer will ensure that proper testing is done. No one wants to spend money on a material that fails or harms a person or the environment. In the global marketplace, if a product fails the consumer will go elsewhere. That’s the ultimate test.

Marie O’Mahony is professor of digital futures, Ontario College of Art + Design University, also visiting professor at University of the Arts London.

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