A standout in camo
Army’s new combat uniforms showcase Bay State textile firm’s technological savvy
FALL RIVER — Here’s what it takes to produce camouflage fabric for the Army: Develop seven colors that blend into wildly different terrains, don’t run or fade in the most extreme conditions, and reflect infrared light to obscure soldiers from night-vision devices. Print those colors in a complex pattern that can never vary by more than a thousandth of an inch. And then produce yard after yard, for millions of yards.
That is what Duro Textiles LLC has done in recent months, as it rushed to provide US soldiers with new camouflage designed to provide better cover in Afghanistan, where the landscape varies from scorching deserts to lush valleys to stark mountainous regions. Duro, founded here more than 60 years ago, is cranking out fabric in a precise blend of greens, browns, and beiges at a rate of 250,000 yards a week, operating round-the-clock and compressing a 12- to 18-month production schedule into a five-month window.
“Duro has the technical expertise to get the colors right and consistent, and they’re doing it at warp speed,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sloane, product manager for soldier clothing and individual equipment at Program Executive Office Soldier, the Army organization responsible for virtually everything soldiers wear and carry. “It’s pretty darn incredible.’’
Duro, which employs about 225 people in Fall River, is an example of a company in a traditional Massachusetts industry that has prospered by adopting new technologies, advancing old ones, and finding high-value niches for its products. In Duro’s case, the niche is military fabrics, which today account for about 80 percent of the privately held company’s revenue.
Duro, which landed its first military contract not long after its founding in 1947, uses lasers and computers in its printing process, but its key technology is chemistry that produces dyes, coatings, and finishes that meet the military’s exacting standards for a variety of materials, from cotton to nylon to advanced fabric blends.
The company dyes and prints fabrics not only for combat uniforms, but for backpacks, helmet covers, outerwear, and training uniforms. Its coatings and finishes waterproof, wick moisture, repel stains, and protect soldiers from microbes.
“We survived because we’ve perfected our chemistry and searched the world for technologies that we can bring back here,’’ said Daniel Pezold, Duro’s senior vice president for military and government fabrics. “The military is a very demanding customer, and, of course, they always want it yesterday.’’
Four years ago, the Pentagon wanted a flame-resistant uniform. With US troops under attack from roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices, serious burn injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan had skyrocketed.
Duro became part of a supply chain of US textile companies that delivered the new uniform, which has helped cut serious burn injuries by nearly half since it was introduced in 2007. The uniform begins with a flame-resistant fiber blend developed by TenCate USA in Union City, Ga., near Atlanta. The fibers are spun into yarn at Pharr Yarns in North Carolina, then woven into fabric at Inman Mills in South Carolina.
Duro dyes and prints the fabric, which is then shipped to Alabama, where American Apparel cuts and sews it into uniforms. “We know our product is saving lives,’’ said Edward Ricci II, Duro’s chief executive.
For Duro, the challenge was to develop dyes that would work with the new material, maintaining the quality and durability of the colors without compromising flame resistance. Duro also had to formulate dyes that would not run or change color when treatments were applied after the uniforms are cut and sewn.
For example, uniforms are treated with insect repellent to protect soldiers not only from bugs, but from insect-borne diseases such as malaria.
Most people don’t consider uniforms when they think about the protection soldiers need, said the Army’s Sloane, but they are critical. Flame resistance, of course, has made them even more important. “During the flash of an explosion, the fire and heat are so intense,’’ Sloane said. “To survive that kind of attack is crucial.’’
A uniform has to do several jobs at once, Sloane said. “It provides protection from the elements. It has to keep you dry and provide ventilation. And it also needs to blend in with the background so you don’t stand out as a target,’’ he said.
Concern about how well the Army’s universal camouflage, a pattern of gray blends, was working in Afghanistan led to the development of the new pattern being printed by Duro. The Army launched the project in September and spent several months devising and testing alternatives, taking photos of soldiers wearing six different camouflage patterns against eight Afghan terrains. The first deliveries to troops will be made next month.
The new pattern, selected earlier this year, is called MultiCam. It presented new challenges to Duro. For example, most camouflage typically has three or four shades; MultiCam has seven. That requires Duro to use six laser-cut screens, instead of the typical three, to print layers of patterns and colors on the fabrics — without any variation in shade or design from one yard to the next.
Duro employees, meanwhile, are taking extra shifts to get the new camouflage to soldiers as soon as possible. Among them is Stephen Cabral, an assistant to the printer, who is working seven days a week.
“You don’t have to carry a gun to be patriotic, and this is my contribution,’’ said Cabral, 51, of Fall River. “I’m not as courageous as these fine young men, but I’m proud to be a small part of the effort.’’
Robert Gavin can be reached at email@example.com.