New technology stimulates design freedom in footwear
August 4, 2010
Stephen Coulson, Chief Technical Officer at P2i and inventor of its ion-mask™ liquid repellent nano-coating, considers the role of ground breaking science in the future of footwear brand differentiation.
As with most sectors of US industry, the economic crisis has had a substantial impact on the footwear market. Bringing with it variable raw material prices, fluctuating exchange rates, dampened consumer demand and protectionist measures, the recession has had a marked effect.
According to the latest Shoe Review (2008/09), consumption of footwear in the US fell by 6.3% in 2008, equating to a total loss of 151 million pairs of shoes. The women’s sector – namely leather footwear – was hit particularly hard, losing 7% consumption (70 million pairs).
Now, more than two years after the recession officially began, it is clear that US consumers have made fundamental changes to the way they shop for shoes, where they shop and the brands they buy. Consumers are looking to lighten the load on the family budget by finding value for their dollar, with the discount/mass and mid-tier retail segments seeing growth.
Nevertheless, value for money doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper, and brands that have established a solid connection with the consumer are not only surviving in the new economy, but are gaining share of consumers’ mindshare and their spending. Thus, while the recession is not yet a distant memory, consumers are willing to pay a fair price for quality and even a premium for design innovation with that added ‘wow’ factor.
As such, it has never been more important for footwear brands to establish and capitalize on their relationship with the consumer through differentiation. Offering more bang per buck will not only serve brands well now, but it will pay bigger dividends as the economy improves.
Technology as differentiator
New materials and construction techniques have long been at the centre of footwear innovation. Now, however, in the quest to find the ultimate combination of style, performance and comfort, a new generation of materials sciences are helping brands to retain distinct market positioning.
Science may not be the most obvious starting point for footwear designers looking to differentiate their brand from the competition. However, recent breakthroughs demonstrate a real step-change in performance without compromising all-important visual appeal – or adding significant cost. From liquid repellent and stain resistant to odor controlling and static dissipating properties, pioneering science is opening up a host of innovative opportunities for brand owners and footwear manufacturers to differentiate their products.
The pioneering work of P2i, and its revolutionary ion-mask™ liquid repellent nano-coating technology, serves as a good example. It uses a special ionized gas (plasma), created in a vacuum chamber, to apply a protective polymer layer over the entire surface of a finished, fully-constructed shoe. This layer is nanoscopically thin, but lowers the surface energy significantly so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply roll off.
Treated shoes keep wearers comfortable and dry, by resisting water from outside and maintaining optimum control of temperature and ‘breathability'. By resisting the absorption of water and dirt, ion-mask™ also helps guard against stains, making products look new for longer.
ion-mask™ has been adopted by some of the world’s leading footwear brands, including adidas Golf and Nike.
According to Marco Grott, Director of Footwear Development for adidas Golf, ion-mask™ provides extraordinary benefits both for customers and company. He says: “As a performance-transforming technology it’s the natural complement for our existing state-of-the-art product features, plus P2i has done its homework to ensure that deployment into manufacturing is smooth and efficient.”
Pushing design boundaries
The advance of new technologies into the footwear market also means it is no longer necessary to compromise a shoe’s aesthetics to achieve the functionality required, leaving designers to do what they do best. With the stain resistance afforded by ion-mask™, for example, footwear brands are able to push traditional design boundaries even further. Lighter color fabrics or more difficult to clean materials, such as suede, can now be used successfully in shoes designed for active or outdoor lifestyles – opening up a new market for multi-purpose lifestyle footwear that looks good and performs well.
Indeed, there has been a shift in sneaker design from athletic-inspired to lifestyle-centric in the last few months. Nike, for example, is set to release the Nike Aina Chukka in fall 2010 – a very innovative one-of-a-kind lifestyle shoe, which consists of a woven, stone-colored suede upper and traditional sneaker sole, giving the appearance of part boot, part sneaker, part moccasin. An unusual mix of sweater and knit materials are also being used by some of the leading women’s boot brands, while light colored canvas and mesh materials are being utilized in lightweight and highly breathable golf shoes. Advances in materials science will only increase flexibility for designers to work with such novel fabrics.
Furthermore, new technologies can be a responsible choice for the growing number of environmentally-aware manufacturers. Water repellency is a crucial area in this respect. Traditionally, the processes used to create sufficient water resistance have involved significant inputs of energy and chemicals. By contrast, the low-energy, solvent-free ion-mask™ process uses only tiny quantities of protective monomer, resulting in minimal waste and no adverse impact on the environment. Plus, because the nano-coating is applied within a vacuum chamber, there is no release to the environment during processing and, since the nano-coating is molecularly bonded to protected objects, there is no wash off, leachables or extractables.
Revolutionary technologies meet consumers’ performance expectations.
Environmental performance is not the only area in which revolutionary technologies like ion-mask™ have effected a step-change improvement in water repellency for footwear applications.
One of the key issues for any footwear manufacturer is durability, not only in terms of the a product’s physical construction, but also the way any specific performance enhancements stand up to everyday use. In the case of water repellency, the performance of traditional approaches is limited.
For instance, the name Durable Water Repellents (DWRs) can be misleading. In fact, abrasion and flexing limit the durability of DWRs in real-wear conditions. This is not the case for a nano-coating approach such as ion-mask™. Although the ion-mask™ protective layer may be one thousand times thinner than a human hair, it is molecularly bonded to the whole product surface and thus is extremely durable and uncompromised by everyday wear and tear. In dynamic test conditions, ion-mask™ has been shown to be ten times more durable than a market-leading DWR, as the graph below indicates.
Membranes are widely used in footwear. As a physical moisture barrier, they are an extremely effective way to
prevent water getting into shoes or boots. However, with zero true airflow (see graph below) they are also very
effective at trapping warm vapor generated by active feet; plus, they inevitably add weight. ion-mask™, by
contrast, delivers the full natural airflow of the chosen material as well as reducing unnecessary bulk, thereby keeping wearers’ feet comfortable and dry.
Taped seams and aftermarket shoe-care products are two other approaches intended to keep water out of footwear. Alas it is very difficult to ensure water ingress will not occur with taped seams, and their physical presence reduces airflow qualities in a similar way to membranes. Shoe-care products, meanwhile, are taken up differently by different footwear materials, thus their longevity cannot be assured.
The future of footwear
With the growth of consumer confidence comes the increasing expectation of brands to deliver the ‘wow’ factor at an affordable price. This means consumers increasingly expect a much wider range of high performance features to be delivered discreetly in a broader range of product types.
The fusion of nano-coatings and other technologies with performance textiles is opening up a host of innovative opportunities for brand owners and footwear manufacturers to seek out this new generation of benefits. Whether it’s sustaining the highest levels of protection against water, maintaining full breathability of the shoe material or allowing for complete design and styling freedom, pioneering science is finding favor in the footwear sector.
Stephen Coulson, PhD, is the Chief Technical Officer of P2i.
Stephen invented the P2i technology while carrying out his PhD at Durham University on ‘Liquid repellent surfaces'. He was consequently employed by the MoD to set up a plasma capability and further scale-up the patented technology for industrial applications. In 2001, Stephen moved into project managing the UK Nuclear Biological and Chemical clothing programme, but continued to exploit the plasma technology for a range of commercial applications. Stephen was the founder of P2i when it was formed in January 2004 and has more than a decade's experience in advanced material sciences and plasma processing.
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