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Posted Date: 11/20/2012

In Apparel and In Spaceships, Big Solutions Can Come in Small Sizes

By Gene Barbee and Jim Prim
When a Canadian producer of high-quality technical outerwear could no longer afford the high cost of labor in Canada, it decided to head south.

The company chose El Salvador, which offered a relatively large industry of approximately 150 textile and apparel companies and a large pool of experienced workers including operators, mechanics and supervisors — many looking for work after some companies had closed during the recession. San Salvador, El Salvador, also offered wage rates similar to those found in China ($0.90/hour) without the time-zone changes and long travel times. Additionally, the factory was to be located in a Free Zone offering no duty and good security.

Three years in, and the company was growing and adding customers, but it did face one particular challenge that was a direct result of the pleasant climate. Temperatures of 75 degrees to 90 degrees will put a smile on the face of many a Canadian, but they were wreaking havoc with the company's lamination processes. Lamination, essentially a gluing process, was being used to apply pocket closures, patch pockets and bottom hems to the company's product. (Lamination of pockets and zippers costs more than sewing, but it provides lighter weight and water-repellent seams.)

NASA, we have a problem
During the laminating process, glue affixed to a paper backing (made by Bemis) was melted using a hot press. Upon completion of the process, a tandem press (cold press) was used to cool, or set, the glue to hold the component being attached in place. Failure to completely cool the laminated element would keep it from setting properly.

To cool the water for the cold press, the industry traditionally — for low-volume manufacturing,— has placed a frozen two-liter soft-drink bottle into a container of water, recycling the water as it becomes warm. The process worked well in Canada, but in the warm climate of El Salvador, the frozen bottles were thawing too quickly, leaving the water to warm up too fast. With up to 10 pairs of presses in use for lamination, significant time was required to change out the melted water bottles for frozen ones. Specifically, the company needed to replace two bottles per hour per pair of presses, for a total of 20 per hour.

Automated cooling systems for high-volume production, with a price tag in the $150,000 range, were not an option.

The company sought to design a more effective and economical cooling system for the cold press to improve the quality of lamination while reducing the labor and time required to replace the water bottles.

One small step for cold presses
That's where Jim Prim comes in. One evening over dinner with Prim, Barbee, a consultant to the industry working with the outerwear company, shared the problem they were trying to tackle.

Prim, a NASA systems engineer who helped develop features on the first Lunar Lander, and Barbee, who was in El Salvador developing a two-year textile college (a project initiated by North Carolina State University (NCSU)), came up with an initial solution utilizing a household freezer adjusted to a temperature just above freezing, and a coolant loop. While the first prototype did not work (the loop did not permit an adequate flow of water), the concept proved to be the right approach, and solved the problem.

One giant leap for efficiency
The cost of the solution came to less than $450 for four workstations and was comprised of a small household freezer, half filled with water cooled to a temperature just above freezing, with insulated tubes drawing the water from the freezer, passing it through the cold press and recycling it back to the freezer. One operator was able to manage two presses.

The solution not only saved time and money by eliminating the significant amount of labor previously required to constantly replace frozen bottles, but it also improved the process by providing a steady temperature throughout.

Completed cooling system
Prim, who trained the first seven U.S. astronauts, including John Glen and Neil Armstrong, notes that not all innovative solutions have to be "rocket science," nor do they have cost a lot of money. In working to lighten the load of Lunar Lander so that it could return to Earth, Prim also found a common-sense solution that didn't require a big budget.

The Lunar Lander was comprised of two sections, one meant for ascending and the other for landing. The latter was to be left on the moon. The ascent module was too heavy to return from the moon to Earth. Prim came up with the idea to place everything not needed on the return flight in the bottom of the lander module and leave it on the moon. Stowing the equipment in the lander section lightened the load enough for the ascent module to take off and return to Earth.

Prim's commonsense philosophy combined with Barbee's engineering techniques led to an innovative solution that was developed and implemented quickly and at low cost.


Gene Barbee is a professional engineer registered in Canada and an international consultant with projects around the world. He is an adjunct professor at NC State University, and was a visiting lecturer in the College of Textiles for four years.

Jim Prim retired from the civil service after 18 years with NASA and seven years with the Dept. of Energy.

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