By Will Rietveld
The original name Cuben Fiber doesn’t do much to describe what the product is; a reporter coined the name back in 1992 when sails made of this fabric helped win the America’s Cup. The name stuck and use of the extraordinarily lightweight and strong fabric expanded into other industries. However, R&D and production were slow and it’s expensive, so adoption struggled along.
Fast forward to May 2015 and it’s announced that Cubic Tech Corporation, the supplier of many versions of Cuben Fiber, has been purchased by Dyneema, a subsidiary of DSM Dyneema, a much larger Dutch company. There is a connection here because Dyneema fibers (ultra-high-molecular weight polyethylene), which have a strength to weight ratio 15 times higher than steel, are the sandwiched strands giving Cuben Fiber fabrics (now called Dyneema Composite Fabrics) their strength. Dyneema, in fact, is the world’s strongest, lightest fiber.
This is all very ironic because Dyneema was first discovered by a DSM scientist back in 1968. At that time DSM was engaged in other industries and had no interest in selling fiber or fabric. From there it took decades for the market (and DSM) to realize the potential for Dyneema fiber. So DSM bought it back.
Why Do We Love It?
Cuben Fiber shelters are extremely light weight and every enlightened backpacker wants one. Cuben Fiber has disrupted the ultralight shelter category, enabling roomy tarps that weigh a few ounces, or an enclosed shelter that weighs around a pound (or less). These shelters are expensive, but once the purchase pain is over, it dramatically reduces the weight of our gear kit.
Where to from here?
Now that Dyneema is recognized for its ability to add exceptional strength and durability to a wide range of projects, DSM is launching its Dyneema Project to expedite applications. Briefly, it will be a research, development, and applications group within DSM Dyneema that will work with companies to integrate Dyneema fibers into new cutting edge products. This approach is not unique; other companies like Gore, Boa, and Vibram have been doing that for years, working with individual companies to develop new versions of the technology and methods to integrate their materials into finished products. The Project will be focused on early adopters, i.e. trailblazers who are looking to disrupt their industry segment.
The best applications of Dyneema fiber are situations where extra strength and durability are desirable, while keeping weight and bulk at a minimum. Backpacking shelters are a perfect example, but the applications go far beyond the typical Cuben Fiber of criss-crossed Dyneema fibers sandwiched between two thin sheets of Mylar plastic. Adding Dyneema to denim fabric could double or triple the tear and abrasion resistance. Same for backpacks, which has already been accomplished, but can be taken many steps further. And think about the possibilities in the footwear industry – how about running and hiking shoes made of bomber fabric that is also very breathable? Then there are medical, military, aerospace, aviation, and automotive applications – Dyneema could find its way into anything that needs to be lightweight, strong, and durable.
Why the Name Change from Cuben Fiber to Dyneema Composite Fabrics?
I asked that question to DSM representatives at OR, and their response was twofold: 1) name recognition – they wanted their fiber Dyneema in the name to differentiate it from competing fibers like Spectra, Vectran, Carbon, Kevlar, etc; and 2) they want to broaden the potential scope of its applications, as described above.
What’s in it for Us?
Unfortunately, the first disruption from Dyneema will be the name change, which will cascade through the system and require updating throughout the verbal, printed, and digital media. That’s an inconvenience that we are willing to accept if it means better fabrics and gear are in our future. When you think about it, new fabric technologies to a large extent drive the outdoor industry. Fabrics get better and better, and most gear contains fabric (or materials that Dyneema could strengthen), so new fabrics are continuously incorporated into new products in an unending evolution. Gear keeps getting better and better, and that’s what makes the outdoor industry so dynamic and exciting.
Article by Will Rietveld