U.S. Research Institute Developing Face Coverings with 3D Knitting Tech

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

By TechnicalTextile (Fibre2Fashion)

This article was posted on TechnicalTextile.net, a Fibre2Fashion initiative, March 2, 2021. The technology it mentions is an alternative to cut and sew manufacturing. We are sharing to help our members and readers stay abreast of developments in this area.

The Navy Exchange Service Command’s Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF), co-located at the Natick Soldier Systems Centre in Natick, Massachusetts, has developed face coverings using 3D knitting technology. The technology reduces the amount of time and labour required in typical traditional cut and sew manufacturing techniques.

NCTRF has been providing research, development, test, evaluation and engineering support for Navy uniforms and personal protective clothing for over 135 years. NCTRF also provides similar support to other military services, governmental agencies and industry partners on a reimbursable basis.

In March 2020, the Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) solicited requirements to address challenges in the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic. NCTRF proposed pivoting its existing Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programme on 3D knitting research from Flight Deck Jerseys to the development of personal protective face coverings, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. NAVSUP concurred and funded the research.

Development of face coverings using 3D knitting technology provides a streamlined and efficient approach to producing an end item. The technology reduces the amount of time and labour required in typical traditional cut and sew manufacturing techniques. Initial evaluation of the first face covering prototype began in July 2020 with a 30-day wear test by volunteers from NCTRF, NEXCOM, NAVSUP, the Chief of Naval Operations office and Naval Sea Systems Command. Participants provided feedback on the comfort, fit and effectiveness of the design. The data collected was applied to the development of an improved face covering variant focusing on structural changes, new fibre blends and design edits for the next evaluation. To understand the performance of the face covering (durability and functionality), key attributes were assessed including particulate filtration efficiency, particle shedding, differential pressure (breathing comfort) and physical properties. The best performing variant was down-selected for the next wear test scheduled in 2021.

Concurrently, under the same SBIR effort, is the development of a hybrid N95 knit-mask interface that consists of a 3D printed frame and a 3D knitted face covering which, in combination, will provide a higher level of protection, potentially augmenting supplies in the medical field and other user groups requiring N95 protection levels. A prototype of the N95 hybrid design is anticipated to be wear-tested in Phase II of the research effort. Designers have focused on meeting the stringent certification requirements and approval processes for N95 masks outlined by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety.

The NCTRF has also been working with the Chief of Naval Personnel and Naval Air Systems Command to develop an improved black safety boot for the Fleet. The goal of this project was to develop and introduce a single safety boot that can be worn in multiple Navy environments to include the flight deck, afloat units, and ashore. The new boot combines the requirements of the General Purpose Safety Boot and the Flight Deck Boot into one design.

“The mission of NCTRF is critical to Navy’s readiness and lethality of the force,” said John D Cassani, deputy commander, Uniform Programmes at NEXCOM. “The NCTRF team is a key component to bring forward new technologies that provide our service members with the necessary uniforms and protective clothing so that they can effectively and safely accomplish their missions.”

The NCTRF organisation is structured into three groups with core competencies that provide a high level of technical support in the area of textiles and clothing development - the Uniform and Certification Group, the Design and Testing Laboratories Group and the Organisational and Protective Clothing Group. The daily efforts of the NCTRF team are focused on meeting or exceeding key stakeholders’ requirements in the development of new and/or updates to uniforms or protective clothing items that provide sailors with the necessary and effective capabilities for mission readiness.

NCTRF’s focus areas in testing includes evaluation of fabrics and clothing systems for key attributes such as fire and heat resistance, water immersion and buoyancy, durability, heat and cold stress. In addition to testing capabilities, NCTRF also manages certification and quality assurance for uniform items and general purpose organisational clothing; is the focal point for Navy’s in-service engineering support for clothing and textiles; designs, develops and improves uniform items and general purpose organisational clothing (GPOC); and holds Technical Warrants for both Uniforms and GPOC. With an experienced staff as well as unique testing equipment and facilities, NCTRF can efficiently move a concept from the drawing board to the production line.

Each group comprises textile technologists, clothing designers and other scientific experts who are all working under a synergistic team model conducting research, design and development efforts to improve the safety and effectiveness of protective garments and equipment. Depending upon specific needs, commercial off-the-shelf products are also evaluated to determine their suitability in Naval environments.

Through its Navy Uniform Certification Programme, NCTRF ensures that all of the commercially-procured uniform items meet or exceed Navy standards.

“Improving uniform styling, fit and durability as well as upgrading materials to bring the best to the customer is part of the NCTRF mission,” said Laurra Winters, director of NCTRF.

One such enhancement executed by the organisation, with funding resources from Uniform Matters Office, was to the design of female service khaki pants and skirts to address issues identified by female sailors. NCTRF continues to strive for the best with current on-going efforts to establish a standardised approach to “fit” using data on the body sizes of today’s Navy population to develop a systematic and standardised approach to uniform patterns.

The NCTRF staff also conducts wear/fit tests, determines appropriate sizing systems for uniforms, assists NEX Uniform Shops and the Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, Recruit Training Centre personnel in fit and tailoring techniques as well as supports a continuous quality assurance program of uniform items.

“The NCTRF organisation has a workforce that is passionate, highly skilled and technically proficient,” said Winters. “Their determination and focus is on introducing new technologies and making uniforms better-suited for our sailors in current training and operational environments. We continuously work in the clothing and textile area to engage small business and actively seek new technologies to address capability gaps that enhance quality of life and/or performance and provide a great benefit to the Navy’s warfighters.”

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