December 9, 2013
Umbrellas shield people from the rain, but the current design is far from perfect. They fold down into soaked, dripping messes, crumple when hit by powerful blasts of wind and fail to safeguard us from muddy puddle splashes.
Recently, a handful of designers have put forth their best revisionist ideas for shoring up some of these deficiencies. There’s the Rain Shield, which features an enlarged canopy that extends, sort of like a tail on a tuxedo, down one side. This extra coverage guards against incoming splash while also preventing forceful gusts from catching the inside of the umbrella. The Rainshader resembles a blown-up motorcycle helmet (without the face guard). Hugging the user’s head, this version is designed to not interfere with people’s views at crowded events like concerts or games and to prevent poking others. The Senz umbrella, another oddly-shaped reboot that comes in the shape of a stealth fighter, is aerodynamically formulated to channel wind flow across the surface, in a way that won’t cause it to flip over. The company claims the Senz can withstand winds of up to 70 mph.
None of these improvements, however, has the makings of a true evolutionary leap for the old school rain cover—at least not yet. Each concept, while mitigating one flaw, propagates others. For example, the Rain Shield’s unorthodox shape requires that the user skillfully twists it down to size, similar to folding down those mesh pop-up hampers. Using a Rainshader can feel a bit confining while appearing to others as if you’re wearing a “nylon mullet.” And if you’re thinking of sharing the Senz umbrella with someone else, forget about it. Coverage is entirely lopsided.
The latest to try his hand at a 2.0 version is Japanese designer Hiroshi Kajimoto. With the collapsing frame on the outside, his new creation, the inside out folding UnBRELLA, is not only better at resisting wind, but also folds upward to keep the wet surface inside and away from yourself and others. The ability to quickly funnel and drain the excess water also means you’ll have more space in the living room, without an array of open wet umbrellas left out to dry. It even stands up to drip dry.
The most obvious drawback, however, is that, when folded, it nearly doubles the length of a conventional umbrella. Again, there’s something about these efforts to revolutionize a tool that’s been around and has remained, at its core, mostly unchanged for a millennium that comes off like trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s understandably tempting for designers to try their hand at something that’s intuitively simple enough, yet has befuddled numerous imaginative minds before them. The Telegraph has even called the challenge to improve the umbrella the holy grail of amateur inventors.
“The rewards for whoever improves the umbrella are substantial,” writes Susan Orlean in the New Yorker. “The annual retail market in the United States alone is now $348 million—about 33 million umbrellas. The rest of the world, including many cultures where umbrellas are used both as rain protection and as sun shade, consumes many millions more.”
But perhaps, when it comes down to it, people have grown too accustomed to the distinguished aesthetic of a perfectly circular hat on a stick that simply opens and folds when we need it. They’d like it to stay cheaply disposable enough to forget in taxi cabs, parties and other public nooks. Maybe, it’s fine the way it is.
“It’s hard to improve on the umbrella,” writes designer Charles Lim at Crooked Pixels. “A better umbrella would have to be easier to recycle or repair, or would be constructed from carbon fibre to make it both durable and light. But why even bother? Umbrellas are perfect because of their price and size. It’s a satisfied and dry market.”
December 6, 2013
To a butterfly, even the slightest torrential downpour can feel like getting pelted by a barrage of bowling balls. And as the insects take cover, the slightest residual moisture touching their wafer-thin wings can also hinder their ability to fly. Fortunately, the little critters evolved uniquely textured wings that excel at repelling water and dirt.
Scientists have known this for some time. But it’s the remarkable wingspans belonging to the blue morpho butterfly, a tropical species native to rainforest regions of Central and South America, that’s of particular interest to scientists as of late. The special ridged patterns on the surface, similar to nasturtium leaves, has been found to repel liquids at a rate that surpasses even the heralded water-shedding capabilities of the lotus leaf.
“For years industry has been copying the lotus. They should start thinking about copying butterflies and nasturtiums,” MIT engineering professor Kripa Varanasi tells BBC News. “We believe these are the most super-hydrophobic surfaces yet.”
Varanasi is best known as the head of the research team that developed LiquiGlide, a slippery surface technology that’s been shown to enable ketchup to slide easily out of the bottle. His latest findings, published in the journal Nature, demonstrate how another fabricated material featuring this added wrinkle may indeed be the most water-resistant stuff on earth.
So, how does this novel material work? As shown in the video, the silicon surface features raised ridges no more than 0.1 millimeter (1/250th of an inch) high, which cause falling droplets of water to flatten like a pancake before immediately breaking apart into smaller, scattered droplets. The smaller the droplets, the faster they bounce off a surface. The amount of time the liquid is in contact with the material is considerably less this way—about a third less, in fact, than it would be with other water-repellant materials.
So what’s the great advantage of a material that can stay drier than the rest? Since smaller droplets are easily repelled, less water on a surface means less likelihood of frost buildup. Commercially, such a material would be of special interest to the aviation industry. Engineers are constantly looking for ways to prevent ice from forming on planes’ wings; this frozen layer can alter airflow and put the aircraft at risk of stalling. Anti-icing systems that melt the ice are already built into airplanes to combat such issues, but a superhydrophobic coating would provide an additional safeguard against the risk. The ridged texture could also be applied to the blades of wind turbines for improved performance and fabrics, which could be used to design clothing that better shields us from the elements.
For now, Varanasi and his research team are working on structural tweaks that they hope will make the material even more water-resistant. They believe increasing the number of ridges may do the trick. “I hope we can manage to get a 70 to 80 percent reduction [in contact time],” he says in a press release. “We can reduce it further.”
November 26, 2013
With the inherent low-brow hokiness of instant spray-on hair and tans, the notion of clothing that you can simply spray on seems destined to occupy a spot at the bottom rung of gimmicky products typically found in the “As Seen On TV” aisle.
But it’s actually premier designer labels like Calvin Klein and specialty boutique shops that inventor Manel Torres had envisioned when he conceived and later developed his patented “couture-in-a-can” technology. At these upscale fashion outlets, shoppers would drop in, undress and have a custom-sprayed scarf draped around them in minutes. In this best-case scenario, prices will likely vary depending on whether the shopper wanted to be coated with $50 pair of Levi’s or $100 Ralph Lauren snug denim. Whatever outfit these style-conscious visitors choose, they’ll walk out feeling assured that they won’t run into anyone else who’s accidentally replicated their truly unique look.
Now, ten years after initially hitting upon the possibility, the British fashion designer is mostly busy fielding phone calls from representatives of fashion houses and other potential investors from a wide spectrum of industries. From the earliest failed prototypes to a current version that Torres has deemed “ready for production,” the revolutionary liquid fabric has since been showcased at a catwalk runway in London, during the Imperial College London Fashion show, where it received plenty of attention from the press. Still, the thoroughly refined technology has yet to go from showroom novelty to anyone’s actual wardrobe.
“I am always getting tons of emails asking when I will bring a product to the market,” says Torres, who founded Fabrican Ltd to market the concept. “Right now, we need global companies to fund this effort.”
The idea for spray-able garments came to him during a wedding, where he watched attendees playing with silly string. The sight left him wondering if something similar could be done with thread. Torres enrolled in a Chemical Engineering PhD program at Imperial College London, where he experimented with numerous formulations that would allow common fabrics like cotton, wool and nylon to be compressed and layered using an ejection system such as a spray gun or an aerosol can.
The fashion pioneer eventually settled on a solution comprised of short, cross-linked fibers held together by special polymers—all of which are soaked in a safe solvent so that the fabric can be delivered in liquid form. As the mixture is sprayed, the solvent evaporates before it comes in contact with the skin, which prevents the then-solid material from completely affixing to the body; it forms a layer of a sturdy, unwoven material with a texture Torres likens to the felt-like chamois leather used to make polishing cloths and towels for drying cars.
The method of spraying, he says, gives designers and consumers immense flexibility to hand-craft a wide range of apparel, such as shirts, coats and undergarments, on the fly. Spraying on multiple layers, for instance, hardens and strengthens the material, and designers can add their aesthetic touch by playing with a diverse range of source fabrics, colors, even scents. Clothing made from the spray-on technology can be washed, re-worn and easily recycled back since the same solvent used to deliver the material can be used to break it down too.
“The wearer can recycle the clothes themselves or perhaps they can take the used clothing into a shop and exchange it for a refill,” Torres explains. “There are many possibilities, but that’s really thinking further ahead.”
Besides being a fashion statement, Torres points out that the material is exceptionally versatile. In fact, Fabrican is currently developing a variation that can be sprayed to cover and protect car seats. It could also have medical value on the battlefield. What if you could, without ever touching a wound, spray on a 100 percent sterile bandage? The company has partnered with military personnel in Britain to test a prototype that functions as a plaster cast for soldiers who become injured while in combat.
“Fashion was our starting point, but we’re now also realizing the technology has so many applications that can benefit other industries,” says Torres. “Fashion owes a lot to science for innovations that make it into clothes you see today, and it’s nice to think this can be our way of giving back.”
November 19, 2013
It’s either grossly unfair or perfectly logical. With fuel prices perpetually on the rise, airlines are enacting measures to account for the cost of any additional weight loaded onto each flight. While fees for extra baggage can be irritating for customers, a recent trend toward also metering human poundage risks really rubbing people the wrong way.
For instance, Samoa Airlines courted controversy earlier this year when the company announced that it would start setting ticket prices according to a person’s weight. In an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio, CEO Chris Langton defended the new business model as “the fairest way of traveling.” Past research has found that 59 percent of men and 71 percent of women living in American Samoa were obese. And in 2009, Michael O’Leary, the outspoken CEO of European discount airline Ryan Air, floated the idea of levying a tax on those deemed overweight, reasoning that the obesity problem has gotten so bad that passengers do not want to “tax fat people but torture them.”
Others in the industry are taking a milder, more diplomatic tact. Citing “trends in demographics,” aircraft manufacturer Airbus has given airlines the option of installing wider seats for customers who can’t fit into standard arrangements. And now Seymourpowell, a British design firm, has proposed a concept for adjustable seats that can morph to the space-demands and contours of an individual’s body.
To drum up interest, the design team produced a video that carefully glossed over the more controversial aspects of their idea; it kindly noted that “all people are different” while playing up the seating arrangement’s benefits to customers and airlines, such as “more choice for customers’ and “flexibility for airlines.” Rather than upgrading all the way up to first class, people can simply purchase enough space to feel comfortable or even lie down, which is the biggest draw of business class anyway. There’s even a case to be made that space-tiered pricing would bring down the cost for many passengers overall.
The best way to understand how the “Morph” works is to envision a row of seats as one long bench. In its default arrangement, the system resembles the standard 18-inch 3 x 1 window and aisle seating found on many commercial aircraft. But for each seat to be modifiable, the traditional foam cushions are replaced with a long flexible, yet strong fabric that’s stretched over the bottom part, with another large piece covering the entire back portion. A series of moving parts and mechanisms allows the seat to mold itself to the passenger’s particular shape and preferences. The system has an adjustable handrest and seat divider frame that can slide sideways and clamp down to form the desired dimensions. So, if a family of three purchases a row of seats—one for mom, one for dad and one for a small child, they can share the space accordingly. You can see a few different seating patterns in the illustration below.
Although this is only in the conceptual stage, it’s pretty much inevitable that airlines’ approach toward passenger seats will undergo a sea change of sorts at some point in the near future. Much of the cost-cutting, which began with minute changes, like revoking the complimentary peanuts, has gotten more serious. Some companies are experimenting with thinner seats to allow for additional rows. Ryan Air, with it’s reputation for nickel and diming passengers, has even floated the idea of having a “standing cabin” in place of the last ten rows of seats, allowing more people to pack aboard an aircraft. And considering the finesse airlines take in reframing what can be a dicey and sensitive public relations matter as a way to provide passengers more choice, should anyone be shocked that major manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus are already interested?
“One airline told us that if they have an oversized passenger, they make them buy two seats,” says Jeremy White, head of transport at Seymourpowell. “I can’t think of anything more degrading or humiliating than forcing someone to buy two seats because they are a bit wide. Would they rather that, than tune their seats for a few more bucks so it fits them?”
While no one wants to sit next to someone who spills over his or her own personal space, isn’t this new seating arrangement, underneath it all, just an elegantly disguised means to discriminate?
November 15, 2013
Despite the classy appearance, there’s something about an exorbitantly pricey bulletproof men’s suit that screams publicity stunt. After all, besides fictional movie characters that go by 007, who in the world would ever need something like this?
Turns out, the $20,000 three-piece fashion statement was actually conceived with an utmost sense of practicality in mind. Men’s custom tailoring upstart Garrison Bespoke designed the new armor-strength threads to suit the special circumstances facing a small subset of businessmen that work in mineral mining, oil production and other highly-lucrative industries that often require traveling to dangerous conflict-stricken regions in Africa and the Middle East. By putting on live demonstrations to showcase its one-of-a-kind creation, the Toronto-based brand hopes to distinguish itself as a design house that makes clothes that are both fashionable and functional.
“As part of our fitting process, we hold consultation sessions with our clients to learn more about the demands of their particular day-to-day routines,” says David Tran, the company’s head of special projects. “And when one of our clients told us about a situation where he was shot and barely survived, it got us thinking about what we can do on our end to help.”
After looking into Kevlar, a fabric commonly used by law enforcement to make bulletproof vests and other anti-ballistic garments, the development team deduced that the material was too bulky for their liking. The whole purpose, Tran says, wasn’t just to offer reliable safety but also to enable the wearer to remain inconspicuous enough to not tip off to those around him that he’s donning protective gear. The finished product had to look polished enough to wear to corporate meetings while also being comfortable to bear throughout the day.
The designers opted ultimately to collaborate with a military contractor company (whose name Garrison Bespoke is keeping confidential) to fashion an outfit that featured fabric made of carbon nanotubes. What makes the material ideal is that, at the molecular level, each sheet is composed of long cylindrical carbon structures that possess a unique combination of rigidity, strength and elasticity that other industrial fibers simply can’t match. Compared to Kevlar, textiles made from carbon nanotubes are thinner, more flexible, weigh 50 percent less and don’t lose their strength when wet.
Even with such advantages, fabricating an ensemble that looked sharp still required a lot of craftsmanship, such as stitching with a special needle and experimenting with numerous threading techniques. The tailors eventually settled on a design in which a minimal amount of thin nanotube sheets was strategically woven into the back lining of the jacket a well as in the front of the vest so that the clothing’s bulletproof properties didn’t significantly alter the natural look and feel of a designer suit. The only time anyone might be able to tell that you’re sporting something bulletpoof, Tran notes, is when the person is standing very close or during the critical moment shots ring out (obviously). As a bullet (up to a .45) strikes the fortified area, the three-layer system hardens on contact to absorb much (but not all) of the bullet’s kinetic impact. Translation: It’ll still hurt some.
“It’s not like Batman movies,” Tran explains. “The person wearing the suit will feel some of the blunt force of the projectile. But it’s a lot less then what they would have experienced with a vest made from Kevlar. It will also prevent sharp objects like a knife from penetrating the body.”
The suit’s shield-like properties won’t last forever, though, as all anti-ballistic materials have a limited shelf life. Carbon nanontube fibers, in particular, generally start to break down after four to five years. Despite some of these drawbacks, Tran says that the company has already sold two customized suits and has a wait list of about 16 orders they’re working to fill, including the president of a country who has expressed interest in meeting with Garrison Bespoke’s representatives for a custom fitting.
The company originally intended to demonstrate the suit’s effectiveness with a live model, but opted to test it using a dressed-up bust instead, citing all the ”red tape” required to obtain permission and, of course, the risk of injury.
“Obviously, nothing out there is going to make it so that it’ll be enjoyable to get shot,” says Tran. “But with our suit, if you happen to get caught in a gunfight, you’ll at least look great running away.”