As a small business a source of inspiration for projects is the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. In 2012 the Navy put out a topic, Seam Engineering: Stitchless Seam Technology, that resonated with us.
We saw in this project a technology innovation footpath to the future in what to date has always been the “sewn products” industry. Could we find new ways of using technology to replace sewing and meet the Navy’s goals of clothing with reduced weight and bulk, excellent performance characteristics and better flexibility and ergonomics?
We put together an outstanding team, wrote a proposal (and that takes a lot of work at 25 pages and a detailed budget), and 120 days later our proposal was competitively selected for contract award. Our approach was not to propose a single technology solution, but instead to do a comprehensive review of all the existing technology, those that could be readily inserted into or modified for the manufacturing process today or those under development for future insertion.
In Phase 1, we assessed every technology we could find, and that was a lot – ultrasonic, radio frequency, laser, heat, and even simply glue. Would the technology work was one question, does it work as good as current technology (needle and thread) or better than was the next question. To find out, we developed a framework to systematically test and evaluate each technology solution and compared to the sewn approach. We teamed up with industry experts for advanced technical clothing product development and manufacturing, as well as university-based experts. We invested in resources, including testing equipment. We ran hundreds of stitchless test seams and tested each for everything relevant – flexibility, durability, weight, waterproofness, resistance to cold and on. We analyzed the large amounts of data generated by all this testing and we used this data to select stitchless technologies and design and build prototype Navy Parkas that weighed less, had less bulk, were more flexible.
By the end of Phase I we had met many of the Navy’s project goals, and we had also identified what further innovation and research was needed to bring stitchless seaming to US-based manufacturing for Navy Clothing. And that is what will come next in a 18-month Phase II contract awarded on September 30, 2015.
So far we have demonstrated that dramatic product improvements for clothing can be achieved when stitchless technology replaces needle and thread. We have thrown out the “old way” of assembly, and the project team and the Navy have started to think outside the box about how to design and build clothing. And we are not done with this process – in fact you could say we are not even at the end of the beginning.
What we have done so far has been noticed both inside and outside the Navy. Propel’s stitchless engineering project has attracted attention globally, and now instead of Propel having to turn over every rock to track down new technologies, new technologies are seeking us out (but we still enjoy turning over rocks too!). We have had calls from everywhere offering new technologies or wanting to know more about how to apply our research to clothing. We even got on TV and had our 15 minutes (actually 2 mins and 35 seconds) of fame.
The US Navy has already awarded Propel a Phase III contract, funded through the Office of Naval Research, to use the efforts from Phase I to design and prototype build an improved damaged control suit for use inside submarines. The design brief was for a single suit to fit everyone from 5'2" to 6' 4" - an extraordinary design challenge that the project team has met. Working with team members Patagonia, Ventura, CA, and Diving Unlimited Inc., San Diego, CA, we will complete this contract in the Fall of 2016.