Tiverton-based textile manufacturer Heathcoat Fabrics has been recognised with a prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Innovation.
The company developed a high performance parachute fabric that has contributed to outstanding commercial success, including delivery of NASA’s Perseverance Rover onto the surface of Mars in February 2021. The innovation has opened the door to other niche space exploration projects, including returning cargo and astronauts from the International Space Station and ensuring the safe splashdown of a capsule containing the first all-civilian team to orbit the Earth.
Heathcoat Fabric’s managing director, Cameron Harvie, said the Heathcoat ‘DecelAir Superlight’ fabric was designed to meet the strictest criteria for space exploration. Innovation underpins the technical textiles that Heathcoat develops, with new opportunities frequently emerging in niche markets where needs are not met by existing methods and products. “We make hundreds of different fabrics for many markets, from apparel to automotive components. We have been a pioneer in manufacturing parachute fabrics since the 1930s. When we met NASA at a symposium in 2015, they saw the potential of a new fabric we had developed and we began trials a year later.
“NASA’s standards have been challenging to say the least. The fabric needed to be twice the strength of standard fabric, within a tight air-permeability window and able to withstand extended heat treatment. The fabric underwent a series of wind tunnel, land-based mortar and sounding rocket tests after which the fabric was selected and used for the successful Mars mission. The fabric even needed to be baked before any rocket was launched, to avoid sending bacteria or micro-organisms to another planet.
“By the nature of the yarn, it is difficult to weave and finish, and it needs to be perfect. There is no second chance opportunity on landing a multi-million dollar space probe. From our investment in high quality looms to the chemistry developed to give the fabric its specific properties, this has been a huge task over a number of years.”
Peter Hill, director of woven fabrics at Heathcoat, and Richard Crane, technical director, have steered a team that centred around three female development engineers – Eleanor Newsome, Lotte De Leeuw and Nicola Willey. Eleanor was instrumental in creating the original concept fabrics for NASA and developing the final product used for Mars2020. She is now leading a development team for automotive and industrial belting fabrics with a focus on achieving energy-saving in drive systems. Lotte is a development engineer in woven fabrics, and is continuing the work in parachute development – working with all of Heathcoat’s space customer development teams for current and planned missions. Nicola’s focus has been on an incredibly challenging project with the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory teams to integrate optical fibre technology for future space mission parachute fabric research.
The Queen’s Award for Enterprise is now in its 56th year and is widely recognised as the most prestigious business award in the UK.
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