Innovation studio

How do your products perform under the microscope?

18 September 2020

Have you ever thought about how your products, and the materials which make them, perform under the microscope? Well, perhaps you should. Many big names have built strong brands upon the foundations of their products having highly desirable characteristics. Take the infamous Levi’s “quality never goes out of style” or Ajax “stronger than dirt” taglines. But what if science could help you substantiate those claims, or even shine a light on novel properties which could add value to your product offering?

The Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) at the University of Plymouth can help businesses do just that. Claire Pearce, PEMC Project Manager, explains: “the PEMC provides high resolution imaging and analysis at the micro-scale, to support industry and research, across a diverse range of disciplines and sectors. Over the last 30 years, we have helped businesses throughout the South West to better understand their products and the materials they work with, an endeavour leading to problem solving, quality improvement, new product development and increased efficiency”.

The centre has all sorts of specialist equipment available, from Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) which uses a high energised electron beam to penetrate through an extremely thin specimen; to Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) which is used to image the surface of an object at a very small scale using an electron beam. Each microscope has different applications, depending on if you want to look at the surface of a material or inside, and both can produce eye-opening discoveries.

But who could make use of this sort of technology? One such example is British swimwear brand Davy J, who create beautiful, active swimwear, all manufactured in the UK and using ECONYL®, a nylon yarn regenerated from 100% marine waste materials. Davy J wanted to see how their fabric performed when compared to their closest competitor. To do this, the PEMC undertook a SEM visual analysis of the surface of the weave, particularly looking for any visual differences between the nylon and elastane threads, how the fabrics acted after being submerged in seawater and air-dried, along with how the fabric looked during stretching.

The results confirmed that Davy J’s fabric looked the same visually and initially appeared to have a similar weave to their competitors. The stretch test, however, identified a noticeable difference whereby the Davy J fabric appeared “tighter” and produced less gaps when compared to the “looser” weave of their competitor. The examination also revealed that Davy J’s fabric has a secondary weave, which only becomes visible when stretched.

Lastly, when the swimming costume fabrics were submerged into salt water and air dried, it was observed that the Davy J fabric had little-to-no salt deposits on or in between fibres, which showed that their swimwear would still perform well even if they weren’t washed after use in the sea. Alas, the same could not be said for their competitor, whereby salt deposits were clearly visible on and in between fibres of the fabric.

This study gave Davy J an invaluable insight into the micro properties of their fabrics and gave light to a possible competitive advantage. It’s vital product knowledge that can not only be used in the research and development of future products, but also adds significant value when considering the different aspects of their marketing mix (Product, Price, Promotion and Place).

“This study gave us a new insight into the micro properties of our fabrics and their performance characteristics. As a growing South West business, access to such technology on our doorstep with Plymouth University is invaluable”, says Davy J.

It’s not just fabrics that can be investigated, but food, rock, metal and much more. Check out their variety of case studies by clicking here. If you would like to find out more about the Electron Microscopy Centre services and discuss how it could support product innovation within your business, contact for a referral to the University of Plymouth.

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