To battle tough performance gear competitors like The North Face, Dick’s Sporting Goods
recently began harnessing nanotechnology. The Pittsburgh-based company coated jackets in its private-label, Koppen line with a water-repellant chemical called Aquapel, which attaches hydrophobic nano-sized whiskers to individual fibers.
Consumers want more juice for the squeeze, explains Shian-Li McGuire, a brand manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Hard-core sports enthusiasts, she adds, are especially pushing fabric innovation. So last year, the company hired a fabric specialist, who searches for new ways to manipulate fabrics.
Across the country, Boise, Idaho-based chipmaker Micron has been using nanotechnology innovation as a global product differentiator for years. Micron uses nanotech to pile more circuits onto a chip wafer, reducing costs over time. The result — more computing power in a handheld cellphone than a big computer in the 1980s.
“Without this technology, there would be no place for us,” says Dean Klein, vice president of memory system development at Micron. “We make the world’s most advanced chips.”
Micron has spent billions of dollars creating fabrication rooms where chips are built.
Consumer goods companies have it easier than Micron. Some nanotechnology research labs and upstarts are supplying resins and chemicals that contain nanotechnology. For example Nano-Tex, which supplies Aquapel to Dick’s Sporting Goods and other companies, sells chemicals that coat fabric.
Creating buzzworthy new products in crowded marketplaces is a must-do goal these days. So apparel makers like Eddie Bauer and Dockers, a unit of Levi Straus, count on nanotechnology to add strength, durability or other performance properties to their fabrics.
The tiny, powerhouse technology is also being harnessed in key industries like energy, building and construction, high-tech, paints and medical device industries.
Consumer goods companies, for example, are folding nanotechnology into everything from golf balls to beer bottles.
Why? Because nanotechnology essentially manipulates molecules, making it an all-purpose — and increasingly important — process. Such wide-ranging uses has experts calling nanotechnology — which was coined in 1986 — the next industrial revolution, with many more uses ahead.
“Nanotech delivers enhanced properties to whatever is being manufactured,” says Jack Uldrich, author of the "Next Big Thing is Really Small." “These extraordinary properties can include making steel stronger.”
Uldrich expects nanotechnology to be a $2.6 trillion market by 2015.
The objective is indeed enticing: designing very small particles that create superior products.
Take the sporting goods industry. Wilson Sporting Goods, now a unit of Finnish company Amer Sports, uses nanoparticles to make its gold club drivers and bags stronger and lighter.
Wilson also makes tennis racquet frames containing silicon dioxide nanoparticles that give the racquet more power and stability, according to Earl Boysen, co-author of "Nanotechnology for Dummies."
St. Croix Rods strengthens its fishing rods with an epoxy resin that uses silica nanoparticles.
Other examples abound.
Apparel makers Tommy Hilfiger and Brooks Brothers make pants, shirts and ties resistant to stains by relying on nano-whiskers.
And Miller Brewing's plastic bottles incorporate nanotechnology to help keep the beer fresher — increasing shelf life by 60 days.
“Manufacturers have many different options to broaden functionality, and products last longer,” says Robert Geer, professor of nanoscience at the State University of New York at Albany. “And nanotech helps companies’ bottom line.”
Not that nanotech isn’t controversial. “We’re still not sure if it’s doing unnecessary harm to our bodies or our environment,” says Ulrich.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says though occupational health risks are "are not yet clearly understood," it is looking into the ramifications of studies showing nanomaterials have increased toxicity.
But for companies hungry for higher sales and fatter margins, nanotechnology’s benefits outshine the risks.
For example, nano-treated fabrics can keep wearers dry longer or repel stains. And companies don’t need extra manufacturing methods, says Mark Brutten, a senior vice president of marketing and product development at Oakland, Calif.-based Nano-Tex. “The magic happens in the curing process,” he says, “causing a reaction.”
The result is more durable, better performing products, he says. “Nanotechnology is driving smart fabrics,” he adds.
Dick’s Sporting Goods does test vendor product claims like Nano-Tex’s, though, adds McGuire. “We see if they actually work,” she says.
Nanotechnology’s future is blindingly bright, though. “Eventually, clothes will repair themselves or even be climate controlled,” says Brutten. “We’ve only just scratched the surface of nanotechnology’s uses.”