High-tech fiber company fighting odor, germs
Noble Biomaterials is ‘Scranton’s best-kept secret.’
SCRANTON — A thin nylon strand danced into the hissing cylinder, whizzing around a column of 400 tiny needles at near-imperceptible speed. A never-ending woven sleeve exited below and coiled onto a small drum.
Sue Courtright’s team manages 156 knitting cylinders, the first stop for nylon fiber in a high-tech world of antibacterial, antistatic and electro conduct ive textiles.
Courtright, vice president of engineering and facilities at Noble Biomaterials Inc. in South Scranton, calls those knitting cylinders her “babies.”
“Every one of these is like a kid to me,” she said, chuckling. “They all have different personalities.”
At the cutting edge of this still-emerging industry is one of Scranton’s best-kept secrets.
Courtright says few people know that Noble is there, and most are amazed when they find out what it does. It’s tucked away off Cedar Avenue in a nondescript industrial building where about 170 technicians and scientists work.
Recently, a global quality and process accreditation organization, the International Organization for Standardization, granted Noble accreditation for its updated 2015 standards that seek heightened risk prevention and management involvement among other things.
The organization awarded accreditation for its ISO 9001:2015 standards in August.
“ISO’S all about ‘Say what you do and do what you say,’” she said before launching into a Ph.d.-level explainer.
“It has to do with such things as: ‘Do you calibrate your ph probe at the start of every shift?’” she said. “Because, as you can imagine, ph is very important in an electroless plating bath.”
The feather in Noble’s cap tells potential customers the world over that the company is thorough and consistent in its processes.
Noble’s fibers are imbued with silver, which neutralizes bacteria and odors among other uses. The silver bonds to the nylon through a chemical process, permanently changing the fiber’s chemical structure. When sweat hits it, the silver releases ions that kill germs.
“We describe ourselves as an intelligent materials company,” said Noble co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer
Joel Furey in a recent interview. “And what we do is make the foundational technology, in this case it’s fibers, it’s fabrics ... it’s the base materials that have the function that gets integrated into the final product.”
It doesn’t take long to find everyday stuff with Noble’s tech in it.
The Veloce bike shop on Franklin Avenue in Scranton sells Giro brand helmets with the company’s trademark X-static fibers in the lining.
The fibers also cancel radio waves, and they’re in the same kinds of sleeves that the Lackawanna County Sheriff ’s Office uses to render cellphones unusable inside courtrooms.
They’re in the cuffs and collars of firefighter’s jackets to reduce rubbing and irritation. The Marines put them in sleeping bags, socks and underwear.
NASA uses them in protective sleeves around bundled cables, shielding them from radio signals and electrostatic.
Production starts with the nylon sleeve about the diameter of a shirtsleeve. Woven together, workers can easily soak large volumes in a chemical bath where the metallization happens.
Once dry, the sleeves go to a winding room where workers fill small bins with the metallized sleeves and load the loose ends onto spinning machines.
As the sleeves unravel, their tips bob and float inside bins like dozens of snakes in a long line of charmers’ baskets, their loose ends coming undone, suspended in air as if some unseen force was holding them up.
The sleeves unzip effortlessly — think of pulling the loose string when opening a bag of dog food.
For garments, such as jogging shorts or golf shirts, Noble guarantees its clients, which include the likes of Lululemon, Adidas and Polo Ralph Lauren, 250 washes in a consumer washing machine. After that, the silver’s effects start to wane.
Noble’s labs, just off the Scranton production floor, recently bought a $150,000 machine to test durability.
Production engineer Thomas Dougal calls the Uster Tensorapid the “heart of the lab.”
“This will tell us when it breaks, how much it can stretch before it breaks,” he said.
Some of Noble’s fibers conduct electricity for use in clothing that talks to medical devices. Dougal uses a large multimeter to check after running fibers through the machine.
“So we can stretch it thousands of times and then we can test it afterwards to see how much of the electrical property degrades,” he said.
Clients send finished product samples to fabric technician Addie Lavelle, who facilitates testing.
She sends them to another lab where manager Michael Hauenstein uses beakers of artificial sweat to test snips of cloth. Together, the team makes sure the silver fibers work as promised after clients weave them into clothing.
Like other manufacturers
throughout Northeast Pennsylvania, Courtright said Noble is always hiring, and now there’s a void in jobs that pay $14 an hour, she said. Entry level jobs start at $11 an hour, she said.
Right now Noble needs process engineers, equipment operators and “people that have strong science and math,” she said. “I can’t stress enough the need for science and math.”
Silver-embedded fibers before, left, and after production at Noble Biomaterials Inc., a manufacturer of hightech fibers that kill odor and bacteria in Scranton.
Production engineer Thomas Dougal of Old Forge speaks at Noble Biomaterials Inc. in Scranton. Some of Noble’s fibers conduct electricity for use in clothing that talks to medical devices.