Five Questions With: Clare King

All systems are go for textile-technology product manufacturer Propel to get its innovative “Steam Suit” onto U.S. Navy submarines. Nominated for a Secretary of the Navy Innovation Award last year, successful field-testing on U.S. subs is complete. Acquisition is the next step, says Propel owner and President Clare King. The Pawtucket company also has its eye on export markets to friendly nation navies.

PBN: Technical textiles have long been a passion of yours, even before Propel started in 2006. What do you think draws you to this particular area of technology?  

KING: Working with technical textiles, we are always solving problems and making a difference. We might solve the problem by developing a new fiber, yarn, fabric, manufacturing method or garment, or all of those at once. But, and at the end of the day – or the two-year project – what we work on enhances safety without compromising comfort and function. That’s what makes this exciting and rewarding work.

PBN: One of the areas where Propel has shown its innovation is with a stitchless method of making garments. How does it work? 

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KING: We’ve been working on new ways to assemble textiles – getting rid of needle-and-thread construction and replacing it with welding and bonding – funded by the U.S. Navy under the Small Business Innovation Research grant program with additional support from the state of Rhode Island.

Essentially, what we have done is to build a technology toolbox that can be used for the assembly of virtually any textile product – not just clothing. We’ve shown that this toolbox results in significant reductions in weight and bulk, which translates into lower cost and improved performance, as well as improved form, fit and function.

This technology also lends itself to robotic assembly and automation, and with adoption will assist reshoring [re-introducing domestic manufacturing to the U.S.] efforts for textile products.

PBN: What are the benefits to the customer in the stitchless method of making e-textiles? 

KING: I’ve already mentioned the potential for domestic manufacturing of textile products, which will make shorter delivery times and smaller production runs feasible. For garments, we demonstrated that we can reduce, for example, the weight of the Navy’s parka by 30 percent and the bulk by 50 percent.

Think about it this way: If every sailor on an aircraft carrier has a stitchless parka, the weight savings will be close to 3,500 pounds. This means less fuel needed to move those garments to the ship, less space on board to store them and less fuel to take the ship on a mission. And if the jacket is lighter, the sailor is expending less energy wearing that garment – another way of saying the human performance improves.

PBN: The Submarine Damage Control Steam Suit has many improvements in areas of donning time and weight. How long did it take to produce this prototype?  

KING: The Steam Suit prototyping contract was completed in 21 months, including time for the U.S. Navy to test the initial prototypes. It is the single most complex garment design and development project I’ve been involved with during my entire career, and was very much a team effort.

We worked with Patagonia Inc., the well-known outdoor clothing company, and Peckham Inc., a highly innovative military-garment contractor to make the suit a reality. For material innovations, we collaborated with Dartex Coatings USA of North Smithfield and Brookwood Industries of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Based on the Navy’s feedback, I am optimistic that the next step will be an acquisition contract from NAVSEA later this year.

PBN: Do you anticipate Propel ever going outside its core market, fire service and the military, maybe into self-monitoring e-textiles for the health care market, for example? 

KING: Yes … in fact, it is already happening, particularly driven by Propel’s 3-D Knitting and e-textile innovations, projects where Propel is teamed with another Rhode Island company, Nautilus Defense. For example, we expect to begin work shortly for a large Boston-based sensor-technology company, and we are also working with a Providence-based startup that has developed concepts for orthopedic health products.

We are working on key enabling technologies for e-textiles, and we expect that these innovations will broaden our market base. At the same time, we continue to work on Department of Defense problems through the SBIR program, and were just selected by the U.S. Marine Corps for our fourth Phase I SBIR contract in six years. This time, we are going to be developing fire-resistant combat uniform fabrics, which also have application into workplace safety.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.