Polymers and Composites in the Sporting Goods Industry

December 2018

The products of the sporting goods industry are performance footwear, performance apparel, and sports gear.  Polymers and composites find many applications in all of these types of products.  Some of these applications will be summarized below.

At Bicerano & Associates, our expertise in polymers and composites helps our clients to develop polymers and composites for any application they may require.

Examples of Applications

The following industry and application highlights provide a sampling of the vast range of applications of polymers and composites in the sporting goods industry.

Performance footwear:  The optimum utilization of polymers and polymer matrix composites is essential for manufacturing performance footwear of high quality and comfort that can be used for prolonged periods despite the severe demands that may be placed on them during use.  Hence polymers and polymer matrix composites find many uses in performance footwear.  The following are some examples:

  • Technical textiles of various types of design, chosen mainly for their technical and performance properties, are among the materials of construction of performance footwear. The fiber types used in such textiles include cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, polypropylene, rayon, Spandex, and many others.  Textiles constructed from these different types of fibers and their blends span a broad range of properties and performance characteristics and are used in many different portions of performance footwear.
  • Synthetic (artificial) leather prepared from polyurethane formulations is often used as an alternative to natural (most often cow) leather in performance footwear. It is available in different designs, at different levels of quality and cost.  It is often a composite made of two layers, including a backing layer that is most often made of woven or nonwoven polyester fibers. 
  • Open-cell polyurethane foams of various densities and thicknesses are used in the tongues, collars, and uppers of shoes. Reticulated open-cell foams are used if the maximum possible amount of ventilation is desired.
  • Midsoles are manufactured from closed-cell foams of materials such as ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymers, polyethylene, styrene-butadiene rubber, polyurethane, natural rubber, and polychloroprene.
  • The polymers and composites used in performance footwear can be further fine-tuned with the use of additives to provide additional benefits. For example, biologically resistant or reactive composites may be used to counteract the typical drawbacks of conventional shoe textiles, such as odor, bacteria, and fungi. 

Performance apparel:  Technical textiles, chosen mainly for their technical and performance properties, are used as materials of construction in performance apparel.  Desirable aesthetic and decorative characteristics can also be and sometimes are also imparted to such textiles, although their selection is not based on such characteristics.

  • Performance apparel must feel comfortable to wear. Most importantly, it must have good heat management and moisture management characteristics since the poor management of heat, moisture, or their combination can both lead to discomfort and reduce the wearer’s performance.  Since sports activities often result in sweating, especially moisture management is an area of continuing innovation.
  • Many types of polymeric fibers are used in performance apparel, including natural fibers (such as cotton, and wool), semisynthetic fibers (such as rayon which is regenerated cellulose and bamboo fiber which is also heavily processed before use in textiles), synthetic fibers (such as polyester, nylon, Spandex, and polypropylene), and blends of (usually two) types of fibers.
  • Sometimes different fibers are used in different portions of the same garment; as in a garment where the main material of construction is a cotton-polyester blend but a component that needs to have extremely high stretchability is made from Spandex.
  • Polyester and cotton are most popular among the fibers used in performance apparel.
    • Polyester is durable, wrinkle-resistant, lightweight, breathable, and non-absorbent. It retains its insulating ability even when it is wet.  Its main disadvantage is that allows unpleasant odors to build up if the wearer sweats due to the physical activity. 
    • Cotton has a more comfortable feel (referred to as “hand” in the industry) when dry. It is also more resistant to the buildup of odors.  Its main disadvantage is that it absorbs moisture, so that cotton apparel can feel extremely wet, heavy, and uncomfortable after a strenuous workout.  Such apparel is, therefore, only suitable for low-sweat activities.
    • Polyester-cotton blends are often used to seek an optimum balance between the relative advantages offered by polyester and cotton. The preferred relative percentages of polyester and cotton in such blends depend on the typical demands of the activity in which such apparel will be used.
  • Textile finishing is a major aspect of the manufacturing of performance apparel. Functional finishes are often used to impart performance apparel with desirable characteristics.  An antimicrobial finish is one example.  More far-reaching is the use of functional finishes to manufacture “smart” textiles that change in response to the condition of the wearer and the wearer’s environment, to maximize comfort and/or safety.  For example, different responses may be activated depending on the temperature, the relative humidity, whether it is raining, whether the wearer is sweating, and whether there are chemical warfare agents in the air.
  • While optimum material selection is of paramount importance in manufacturing performance apparel that best meet the wearer’s needs, fabric construction is also an important consideration. Apparel manufactured from the same fiber(s) may show significant differences in performance depending on fabric construction. 

Sports gear:  Polymers and polymer matrix composites find many uses in sports gear.  The following are some examples:

  • Fiber-reinforced composites are used as materials of construction in high-performance sports gear because of their light weight, high strength, many degrees of freedom of design, and easy processing and forming characteristics.  Examples of sports gear where such composites are used include skis, baseball bats, golf clubs, tennis rackets, and bicycle frames.
  • Parachutes, balloon fabrics, paraglide fabrics, and sailcloth are some other examples of the use of technical textiles in sports gear.
  • Polymeric foams are used in a wide range of sports gear; such as padding or insert in motorcycle helmets to provide impact protection and shock absorption, hand grips for motorcycles, muscle rollers, exercise mats, floating mallard decoys, and surfboard components.
  • Biologically resistant or reactive polymers and composites can provide protection against the hazards posed by sports gear use, primarily excessive moisture, which promotes the growth of bacteria and fungi.

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