In the past, Malden Mills has electrified the outdoor-goods market with its popular fleece fabrics. Now the company is electrifying the fabrics themselves.
This month, two consumer products were introduced using what Malden Mills calls 'conductive fibres' laminated into heated jackets or woven into electric blankets sold by its commercial partners Lands' End and The North Face (see director-e News, Tuesday 23 October).
The project caps a three-year research and development effort by the company to diversify its products. Its fleece is widely used to insulate outdoor clothing, and this generated the bulk of closely held Malden Mills' roughly $236 million (£166 million) in revenue expected for its current fiscal year.
The fleece fabric was also key to Malden Mills' comeback following a devastating fire in late 1995. But the company's revenue is down from $262 million (£184.4 million) in fiscal 2000, mainly because of slowing demand in a saturated outdoor market, and Malden won't say whether it expects to be profitable this year.
With the new fibres, Malden Mills hopes to develop new markets and stay ahead of competing Asian factories that now supply much of the fleece used worldwide.
The new fibres, which heat up when connected to a power source, are part of an emerging field known as 'electronic textiles' or 'smart fabrics'. The area is of interest to those researching wearable computers.
Carole Winterhalter, a textile technologist at the Army's Natick Soldier Center, imagines the development of a 'personal area network' that could connect various portable devices just as a 'local area network' connects office computers and printers.
Malden Mills has made black and olive coloured fleece jackets for the Army soldiers and Marines involved in the ground troop action in Afghanistan. The company expects more military orders for its fleece fabric.
This month, The North Face, part of VF Corp., introduced a 20-ounce black heated jacket that sells for $499 (£350), about three times as much as its traditional all-fleece designs.
The hooded garment includes two large panels containing fields of the conductive fibre, laminated between layers of Malden Mills' standard fleece. Two re-chargeable lithium-ion batteries that last five hours are sewn into waist-level pockets, and controlled by a small switch in a chest pocket.
Buyers, North Face states in its advertisements, can "Be the first to say, 'Wait, let me turn on my jacket'." The company says it expects to sell 1,400 jackets quickly, and that it may introduce heated vests or gloves later.
Malden Mills' blanket also draws on research into 'electronic fabrics', using a ribbon-like electric bus folded under seams at each end of the blanket to carry current. The electric bus was developed with the help of engineering firm Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham.
The fibres themselves are metallic strands sheathed with a plastic coating so they can be woven on a standard high-speed industrial loom. Whereas Malden Mills' standard fleece is made entirely in polyester, the blanket's content is 96 percent polyester. The other 4 percent is some sort of 'metallic-fibre', according to its label.
When plugged into a wall outlet, the blanket is warmed with a 28-volt DC current. It uses a round wire-less controller designed by the development firm Altitude Inc. of Somerville.
Through the Lands' End catalogue, Malden Mills sells its blanket for $219 (£154) for a king-size version, compared with $79.97 (£56.30) for a traditional electric blanket in the same size made by Sunbeam Products Inc., which operates at the higher power level of 120 volts.
Malden Mills says its heatable fibres, spaced an inch apart, are flexible enough to be indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket, as opposed to the more rigid wire grid used on traditional electric blankets.
"There's been substantially no change in the traditional product in decades", says Robert Himmel, president of Malden Ventures, the division that brought the new products to market. "What we're offering basically is the automobile tyre compared to the wagon wheel".
From an article by Ross Gerber in the Boston Globe.