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News | April 20, 2016

On Spec

By Beth Reece

Hunter, olive, mint: The shades of green are many, but the Army has strict standards for which ones make up the service’s camouflage pattern. Before a soldier dons a new combat uniform, its fabric has been checked to verify that it conforms to the military’s strict color standards.

 Service members’ uniforms, protective gear and even footwear undergo rigorous testing for everything from colorfastness to wear resistance and safety at the Defense Logistics Agency Analytical Product Testing Center in Philadelphia. A new research and development initiative headed by DLA Logistics Operations’ Julie Tsao aims to consolidate technical data that outlines performance requirements and testing for clothing and textile items in a digital environment assessable to the services, DLA and industry.

“The military continually redesigns uniforms and individual equipment, and that’s a challenge for industry because technical data is difficult to acquire,” Tsao said. “It’s DLA’s responsibility to pass item specifications to the industrial base, but they’re stored in PDF documents, a format that usually isn’t compatible with commercial databases.”

Military specifications are also lengthy, accounting for such characteristics as durability and fabric content. It takes thousands of pages to outline specifications associated with the fabric, content, wear and color for the Army’s combat uniform trousers, for example. But lack of access to these specs increases the risk that vendors’ fabric and patterns will be rejected. “By the time testers reject a lot of fabric, the printer already has millions of dollars on the line,” Tsao said.

Getting uniforms through production into the hands of service members is further complicated by conflicting use of shade-evaluation methods, which can be done via the human eye or with a color-measuring device. Industry and DoD agree the latter are not adequate for multi-colored fabric, such as camouflage, but industry has become more reliant on devices to evaluate shades for solid-colored fabrics.

Color scientists at DoD test labs prefer visual testing. They’re among a small group of individuals who can see up to 10 million colors, and their ability to evaluate fabric shading is tested every six months with a specialized color-acuity test. Industry, however, relies more on instrumental readings to assess color shades.

“When the test lab gives a rejection, the reason can be as simple as too green or too red. So even when fabric is rejected, there’s no instrumental reading provided to the printer so they can make adjustments accordingly,” Tsao said.

Tsao’s program sponsored a study in collaboration with the Textile Materials Evaluation Teamat the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Massachusetts, the DLA Product Test Center, and industry which found a correlation between instrumental readings and human shade testing for a number of solid-shade military fabrics. The challenge, Tsao said, is that users must know how to properly calibrate the instrument and there must be a disciplined reading process that’s standard among the services, manufacturers and fabric testers. As a result, DLA has begun to provide instrumental readings on the color standard for use by industry in its instrumental shade evaluations.

DLA’s product testers are gradually providing instrumental readings to industry, and current R&D efforts will help automate the test reporting process.

Partnering with industry on these and similar projects is critical because the clothing and textile manufacturing base is fragile, Tsao added. The Berry Amendment requires the Defense Department to buy only U.S.-made products, but it’s become increasingly difficult to find raw components, such as thread and buttons, that aren’t from foreign sources. It’s also a small industry of primarily small businesses whose only customer is the U.S. military.

Tsao’s work has already shown that emerging technology can lead to major improvements despite the challenges inherent to clothing and textiles. In early 2010, she led a project to incorporate the use of radio-frequency identification technology during the clothing-issue process at recruit training centers. Collecting initial clothing items was then a three-hour process during which troops collected gear, visually inspected it and recorded the quantities and sizes they received with pen and paper.

Attaching RFID tags to the items and having troops walk through an RFID reader reduced the process to about 45 minutes. The information is automatically transmitted to DLA Troop Support, where clothing and textile items are managed, so it can be used for inventory and readiness planning.

“RFID technology gives us traceability of the entire supply chain, because we can trace items back to the manufacturer and the commercial warehouse all the way to the customer warehouse and point of issue,” Tsao said. “It also lowered our inventory levels and gave us more accurate visibility of that inventory.”

Unlike research and development for other DLA-managed commodities, projects relating to clothing and textiles are usually long term.

“Every five to seven years, we have a major accomplishment, then transition to another area,” Tsao said. “The goal is always to connect the various pieces of the supply chain and improve customer support.”