By Julie Watterson
An interdisciplinary team from NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles (COT) was named a runner up in the nationwide Proof: The ChemBio Suit Design Challenge. The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, challenged participants to redesign protective chemical-biological suits worn by military troops in ways that increase mobility, dexterity and tactility.
The Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC) led team received a $15,000 prize for their design, “A More Fitted Hood.” They were among 12 finalists ranging from college students to engineers. The invitation to participate and submit designs was extended to the textile technology, innovation community, and general public population.
“We were excited to use the Proof Challenge to reach out to the general public, beyond our military resources and experts, to source ideas and solutions for innovation,” says LeRoy Garey, the Proof Challenge product manager.
Team members include Dr. Cassandra Kwon, research assistant professor, prototype development, T-PACC; Dr. Minyoung Suh, assistant professor in the department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management; William Gabler, a student in the Fiber and Polymer Science (FPS) Ph.D. program; Marc Mathews, a T-PACC research associate; Caitlin McCall, a master’s student pursuing a degree in Textile Management; Raquel Weis, a senior majoring in Polymer and Color Chemistry; and Hilary Smith, a senior majoring in Industrial Design in the College of Design. Kwon, Suh and Gabler were project leaders.
The team was fortunate to have two members with relevant experience; Mathews was a U.S. Marine and had experience wearing chemical protective clothing. Weis has worked with the military over the years and is trained as a paramedic. They also benefited from having members of the team based in T-PACC, the only academic center in the U.S. that incorporates in one location the capabilities to research, test, and evaluate the comfort and protective performance of textile materials, garments, and ensemble systems.
“All our submitted designs were truly a collaborative effort through brainstorming. However, working within T-PACC and having the center as a resource was valuable as we were aware of current PPE problems within high-performing protective textiles,” said Kwon. “The hood design and interface of many PPE uniforms has always been a highlighted issue with users, so it was one of the first problem areas we discussed. “The current hood at the face, neck, and around any sort of additional equipment can be uncomfortable due to an ill-fit. It is near impossible to customize the current system to each individual wearer and donning is a hassle,” said Kwon.
The group narrowed in on that right away as feature that needed improvement. They wanted to remove the zipper near the neck and the drawstring to make it easier to don over a facemask.
“We were inspired by cold weather knit balaclavas, and basically asked how can we translate that design to this type of ensemble that has other material requirements,” explained Gabler.
While the hood was of great interest, the group was open to collaborative idea sharing. In the first meeting, they looked over the submission guidelines and Gabler presented some information on current military protective clothing, which is his graduate research focus.
“When we met the second time, everyone showed up with their individual inspirations. That was probably the most exciting meeting, to see the different directions that everyone came from,” said Gabler.
From there the group brainstormed each idea together and selected a few that were worth focusing on. They developed each one into a prototype or a visual rendering and regrouped to compile and edit the submissions.
Eight weeks later, the creative group submitted four different proposals: a redesigned jumpsuit style ensemble; a method of adjusting the size and fit of the suit; a novel idea for manufacturing a glove; and the award-winning redesigned hood.
“Our design was unique in that is really focused on optimizing the fit of the hood around the head as well looking into technical materials that traditionally would not been seen in military clothing. This includes the use of power knits as well as patterning the closure to wrap around the neck as opposed to how it currently set to the jacket. This allows for a better fit and movement,” said Kwon.
Kwon was overjoyed with the diverse knowledge and backgrounds that helped to drive the team in many directions but also served them well as they delved into into detailed design work.
“For me, I think we were able to assemble an awesome group of individuals with different backgrounds and areas of expertise to approach the area of protective textiles in a truly out-of-the-box way,” said Kwon. “For most of the team, military clothing and PPE is completely new and foreign, so being able to create a winning design for this specific area really highlights how textiles can be diverse, yet applicable on many levels. Not to mention, we really enjoyed working together.”
Gabler agreed that the team’s chemistry and melding of strengths were a highlight.
“It was a great experience for me to watch Caitlin drape and pattern a hood prototype. We had talked through ideas and sketches as a team, but then she went and actually made the idea come to life. It put into perspective the challenge of making well designed and comfortable protective clothing,” he said.
The team leaders agree that T-PACC support in this effort was a huge plus.
“Research and development in protective clothing is what we do, so we are well versed in the areas that need improvement in current systems as well as having a good handle on innovative materials,” said Kwon.
Having the diverse resources and human talents available at the Wilson College of Textiles and NC State was of great help as well.
“Everyone on the team has a skill relevant to making the designs come to life! This includes software work, patterning, and sewing for our prototype. COT is the best network under one college,” said Kwon.
The type of multidisciplinary problem solving that the NC State team brought to the challenge is exactly what organizers hoped for.
“The thinking, attention to detail, and fresh ideas were astounding, exceeding what we expected. This type of public collaboration is something we look forward to tapping into in the future – joining forces with the Americans we serve to help protect this country and our Warfighters,” said Garey.
For more information visit: http://www.proofchallenge.com/