Today’s technical textiles are more than meets the eye. Flame resistant (FR) fabrics for protective workwear are no exception—requiring a keen understanding of market need, deep scientific expertise, and a bold exploratory perspective.
We sat down with Steve Lucas, Senior FR Technologist & Development Engineer, to discover his approach to developing industry-leading FR fabrics that help protect his customers in the oil and gas, electrical maintenance, and utilities from flash fire and arc flash hazards. His perspective in short: prioritize listening, then challenge the status quo.
Q: What is the latest product you worked on? What problem did it help solve?
A: I was part of the team that developed the new UltraSoft® Flex fabric for Westex by Milliken. The FR textiles market tends to follow retail market trends. As we have seen more stretch, comfort waist, multi-way flex type of products in the retail marketplace, for example, we are seeing FR fabrics starting to follow these trends, too.
The challenge with FR fabrics is the regulations related to fire safety, which make some retail trends harder to duplicate. One particular challenge can be wash shrinkage. Products made in accordance with NFPA 70E, the industry standard requiring employees working on or near energized equipment to wear FR clothing, must meet ASTM F1506’s low-shrinkage specification, which can be tough to achieve when a product has spandex. To meet the trends of comfort and performance in everyday FR workwear, we created UltraSoft® Flex, an FR fabric surpassing the ASTM F1506 specification and offering more than 50% stretch compared to other FR fabrics.
Q: How do Westex® brand fabrics enhance the way companies approach employee safety?
A: The key to employee safety is for them to wear the correct type of safety garments. If the garment is not comfortable or not “stylish” then people have less desire to wear it, even when it is a condition of employment. Westex has made the customer experience a priority. Not only do we make consistent, dependable products, but we also have additional steps within our engineering process to ensure the Westex® brand fabrics are comfortable so workers want to wear them on or even off the job.
Q: How do you approach innovation?
A: My primary approach to innovation is listening to a customer’s needs and wants. While there might be limitations to achieving all their desires, this exercise helps us understand their unique perspective and reveals a starting point for research.
Q: What inspires you to think differently about R&D/science?
A: I work very closely with extremely creative people in our research area. Milliken researchers tend to think outside of the box, and it inspires me to find a practical way to use their vision to create unique and useful products. If we can devise a product our competitors have not considered, have not tried, or cannot make, it is inspiring to see us be able to bring it to life.
Q: What does R&D look like for new fabric development?
A: New fabric development always starts with an idea or a marketplace need. Many times, I will involve research if it is a new concept regarding fabric chemistries. Lab research may be needed to formulate mixes or test out theories, and then we proceed to production equipment. I work closely with our expert manufacturing teams to develop processes to create the new product. From start to finish, the process requires a team effort, with professionals from all areas—research, yarn formation, weaving, knitting, finishing, and testing—to create final products for customers.
Q: How do you consider the end user during the R&D process?
A: End users are always top of mind when innovating FR fabrics. We have an entire team that works closely with end users and provides unique insights on how the FR market can be improved. With developing FR products, it is always safety first. We want to create cutting-edge, superior products that protect end users. The next consideration is comfort, because it is an integral part of keeping people safe. In order to be protected by a garment, you have to wear the garment appropriately. Comfort helps alleviate that roadblock. Finally, we ideally want to meet the customers “wants” list; while this is not always possible, it is a driving consideration in development.
Q: What drew you to a career in R&D?
A: My first experience with development was working with Milliken’s airbag business. I was selected to be an Expat and move to England for 18 months begin developing flat woven airbags for the European market. The development process required solving various issues, and it was extremely rewarding to overcome the challenges and create an end-product that met the needs of the customer. That experience pointed me in a direction that has led me to the position I now have in development. There are plenty of challenges for each project, but that is what makes them fun.
Q: What do you enjoy about life at Milliken?
A: I enjoy the people and resources at Milliken—you interact with many different personalities. I have been working at Milliken for more than 20 years, and you come to appreciate various perspectives and techniques when working with new people. The resources that Milliken provides would be hard to match in other companies. I have the ability to make a mistake and learn from it without impacting our business. Some of those mistakes have helped me and others learn valuable lessons, which ultimately make our company stronger.
Q: What do you like to do when you're not working?
A: With four children ages 8-14, to say the least, they keep me busy. I am pretty hands-on with projects, so I keep a nice yard and I like wood-working. I stay active in church and sit on the board of a couple of nonprofit organizations. Throw in a little P90x exercising and recreational activities, and that about ties up the rest of my time.
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