Wouldn't it be nice if we could look into the future to see what advancements will have been made in hand protection product manufacturing during the next 5, 10 or 15 years?
Since this is not possible, glove manufacturers instead focus on product usage trends and current worker protection needs that are not being met to help guide their research and development efforts. Additionally, they survey related industries and respond with new products and technologies.
In the past, conventional glove manufacturing relied on massive manpower and conventional technology for production. Companies were manufacturing-focused and employed popular, systematic approaches using recognized materials to make products or components in a highly consistent manner.
Today, branded manufacturers are placing greater emphasis on product differentiation as customers become more sophisticated in their expectations. Hand protection products must meet customer requirements at every level, providing the protection, comfort and dexterity that help promote worker safety and productivity.
Listening to the Voice of the Customer
The leading glove manufacturers have always relied on the voice of the customer to guide product development and manufacturing decisions. It's a well known fact that many product innovations and processes originate from customer-specific requests.
The recent economic downturn, however, has mandated that manufacturers develop even closer working relationships with customers to provide products that meet their specific needs. Glove manufacturers are focusing on improvisation and experimentation, with greater emphasis on identifying a variety of materials that offer solutions to specific design challenges.
Lessons from the Sports Apparel Industry
Customers want hand protection products that look good, feel good and provide high levels of performance. They want to provide workers with gloves, for example, that are thinner, more comfortable and provide the same protective qualities—such as cut and chemical protection—that workers have come to enjoy.
Safety directors and others have witnessed the innovations that sports apparel manufacturers have designed into their products—including coolness and comfort features and moisture wicking capabilities—and expect similar features in their hand protection. Because they desire the fit and pleasing appearance common to sports attire, there is a higher demand than ever for form-fitting gloves with brighter colours, patterns and textures.
Glove products today must also be able to perform in more diverse and demanding environments. They may prevent odour, incorporate antimicrobial properties, repel insects or offer fire, ultraviolet, impact or puncture resistance.
Global markets and mounting competition
Products developed for specific applications or specialty performance generally include a more complex design and offer greater value per unit. Many of these newly developed products are manufactured in smaller volumes and targeted to niche markets, which has resulted in companies seeking global customers for their products.
Glove manufacturers are also exploring global production opportunities, with conventional glove manufacturing shifting to Asia, South America and Africa. Despite this change, hand protection providers continue to emphasize the production of high-quality, high-volume products at the lowest possible cost.
They have witnessed how easily their branded products can be duplicated in the global marketplace and how rapidly that duplication can occur. Australia is experiencing a tremendous influx of cheap imitations that look similar to high quality gloves, but fall short in their ability to perform or protect workers from injury.
Market knowledge and a comprehensive understanding of customers' unmet needs are more critical than ever to successfully compete at a global level. The role of hand protection providers extends beyond product recommendations—they must understand a customer's entire business and be prepared to recommend solutions that meet certain requirements.
How glove manufacturers are responding
How are branded manufacturers responding to the demands and competition represented by a global market? Many are looking at ways to modify existing processes and examining methods to push the limits of new technologies. For example, yarn configuration can be optimised in certain products to achieve flame or cut resistance.
In knitted products, for example, the knitting structure can be changed within specific sections of the glove to improve comfort and performance or minimize hand fatigue. Varying the stitching over the knuckles can increase flexibility and reduce hand fatigue. Post-knitting treatments such as finishes may be applied to both sides of a glove, with different treatments on each side. Finishes can also be localised to enhance the protection in a certain area.
Technology providers like Ansell continue to pursue intellectual property protection for these types of break-through products and processes to reduce the likelihood of duplication.
Growing Emphasis on "Green" Materials and Processes
Emphasis on green manufacturing processes, green technologies and sustainability continues to grow among glove manufacturers and has resulted, in part, from consumers' support of green, environmentally friendly products. Green manufacturing is not a short-lived fad that may disappear in a few years; it is a mandate that is claiming centre stage among hand protection product manufacturers, regulators and marketers.
The textile product manufacturing industry—including the production of safety gloves—by its very nature can have major ecological and social impacts. Glove manufacturers are becoming greener by using renewable resources such as sun and wind power. They are reducing costs by using less water and decreasing their consumption of non-productive electricity. They are also implementing water treatment processes and strictly adhering to effluent discharge regulations.
Many companies are considering options to reduce the amount of scrap they produce and to decrease their reliance on petro chemically-derived resources. There is renewed emphasis on improved fibres and new sources of natural fibres.
Post consumer recyclate (PCR), for example, is derived from recycled soda and water bottles and is gaining popularity as a valuable raw material. Demand is also increasing for fibres such as biopolymers based on starch, cellulose and polylactic acid (PLA), which are used in disposable products.
The growing demand for greener products and processes will likely lead to new manufacturing processes that support branded manufacturers committed to using environmentally preferable alternatives rather than petroleum-based plastics.
Availability of technologically advanced products
How soon customers will see products incorporating new technologies in the marketplace will depend on the technology and the cost of commercialisation. Some technologies such as fibres from PCR are already commercially available and could move quickly into the marketplace. Other technologies may work well in a laboratory setting but may not be economically feasible for commercial production.
Testing is critical to new product development and is used to verify product quality and specification compliance. The growing potential for engineered yarns emphasizes the need for expanded testing for tensile, cut, puncture and abrasion resistance. Adding functions to gloves such as antimicrobial qualities or moisture management will push the limits of exiting test methods and researchers' ability to correlate lab test results with actual performance.
Workers' hand protection needs continue to change and evolve. Branded manufacturers will respond by producing quality products for niche and global markets and employing a variety of technologies developed with technology partners committed to keeping workers safe.