Vp of Marketing
Work Wear Hits Pay Dirt - Doctor's Scrubs Repel Blood, Football Gear Stretches Farther, a Wash 'n Wear Tux
Surgical scrubs that resist microbes and repel blood. Tuxedos that can be tossed into the washing machine. Basketball undershorts that help players jump higher. Work clothing today not only has to look good, it is expected to make wearers perform better, be it a hospital, a hotel restaurant or a sports arena.
To this end, researchers at a handful of lab facilities across the country are prodding, pulling and pounding high-tech uniforms, looking for advancements—and a competitive edge.
At a corporate campus in Beaverton, Ore., a 5-foot-8½-inch robot named Hal walks on treadmill in a climate-controlled chamber. Sensors measure Hal's sweat and body temperature in 30 zones, testing whether his uniform provides enough ventilation to stay dry and cool—but not cold. Nearby, a human tester runs on a treadmill with several sensors taped to his body, gauging whether his workout garb allows his body temperature to rise naturally without spiking too high.
These testers are part of Nike Inc.'s Sport Research Laboratory, a 16,000-square-foot facility with sections of a running track, sport courts and artificial turf for testing gear for various sports. Force-plates are embedded in the floor to gauge the impact and weight distribution of athletes' feet. Eighteen researchers, from physicists and biomechanists to exercise physiologists and materials scientists, create and test concepts here, aided by engineers, designers and physicians.
About one in five workers wears a work uniform of some kind, according to the North American Association of Uniform Manufacturers & Distributors. That is roughly double the level of 10 years ago, says Richard Lerman, the association's president, who cited growth in service jobs and employers' desire to improve their corporate image and tighten security.
Sports is where much of the R&D for uniforms first occurs. Darren Stefanyshyn, an associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Calgary, Canada, has been studying athletes jumping and running in the lab for years. There he noted, "when you analyzed an ankle, knee or hip, they acted very much like springs." Working with sportswear-maker Adidas, Dr. Stefanyshyn, who has co-authored many peer-reviewed studies on athletic wear and performance, helped develop ways to mold thermoplastic polyurethane bands to fabric to support and guide muscles in their movements.
Dr. Stefanyshyn says lab tests indicate that athletes wearing undergarments with the bands on key muscle groups post small but noticeable gains in their ability to sprint, run and jump.
Dr. Stefanyshyn is submitting the research to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal later this year. Based on his research, Adidas is using the "TechFit PowerWeb" technology in its National Basketball Association uniforms and other gear.
Medical-wear makers are borrowing tools from the athletic-wear industry. When physician assistant Lara Manchik wanted a lab coat that was as comfortable as the waterproof, breathable sportswear she wore, she founded Medelita, San Clemente, Calif., which uses similar technology to produce scrubs that wick off sweat. The company also treats the fabric with Teflon to repel stains and shed spills and body fluids, says Joe Francisco, president.
Other uniforms help protect health-care workers against infectious disease. Vestagen, an Orlando, Fla., maker of anti-microbial, fluid-resistant medical wear, treats cloth with chemicals, runs it through high-pressure rollers and cures it in ovens up to 50-yards long, says Ben Favret, the company's president. Scientists test fabric samples by plunging them into a broth of microbes, such as antibiotic-resistant staph, and measuring later how much of the bacteria survive, he says.
One of the most important feature of today's uniform is comfort. Manufacturers have mostly eliminated the stiff, shiny uniforms of the past.
Becky Knight, a retired Western Airlines flight attendant, recalls the double-knit polyester uniform she wore in the mid-1970s. Such outfits trapped heat, sweat and odor.
"It was horrible, like a rubberized suit," says Ms. Knight, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "There was absolutely nothing natural in that thing." She was relieved when cooler uniforms were issued, using new polyester blends.
The latest polyester fabrics are still durable, but wick away moisture and help keep wearers cool, dry and odor-free, says Janice Henry, a vice president for Superior Uniform Group in Seminole, Fla. To make sure the fabrics won't pill, lose their shape, tear, bleed or fall apart after washing, the company runs them through abrasion machines, tumbles them inside a chamber lined with corkboard, and plunges them into a "laundrometer," a steel canister with metal balls inside that "literally beats up the fabric," simulating five launderings in one cycle, Ms. Henry says. A "crockmeter" rubs fabrics together to see if dye colors transfer. A "tear tester" gauges the force required to rip a fabric.
Uniform maker Cintas Corp., Mason, Ohio, has water bottles recycled into pellets, then into flakes which are woven into yarn, says Donna Knechtel, product manager. The yarn is used in making washable tailored suits for hotel, transportation and other workers, and even a washable tuxedo uniforms for banquet servers. The company also markets a golf-style shirt made of recycled polyester and charcoal derived from coconut and bamboo, to eliminate odors; the shirt can be sent back to the company for recycling.
Uniform makers continue to push for their own version of the Holy Grail. Among hoped-for advancements, Ms. Henry cites self-cleaning uniform fabric made of tiny nanofilaments so small that liquids bead and roll off like marbles, preventing the cloth from ever getting stained or wet.
Also on the radar are uniforms embedded with light-emitting diodes that produce glowing promotional images; or uniforms made of "smart fabrics" woven with sensors to monitor the condition of soldiers, firefighters or other workers assigned to dangerous environments.
By SUE SHELLENBARGER
The Wall Street Journal