Getting a Grip: The Flat Dip Revolution
By Craig Wagner
President of Global Glove

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a hand protection revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since the perfection of disposable nitrile glove manufacturing. Never before have levels of such unprecedented demand and production existed in the oft-stagnant general-purpose glove segment. Requests for flat-dip gloves outstrip many manufacturers’ ability to keep up. Quite simply, flat dip technology and manufacturing is changing the rules of the game for everybody in the hand protection business.

What is flat dip technology? Where did it originate? Why is its impact so great? The following will seek to answer these questions and provide a little history of glove breakthroughs over the years, adding some needed insight and perspective to the flat dip innovation.

What Went Before

The milestones in hand protection technology divide glove history into several neatly defined eras marked by advances in distinct areas of production. These developments are in the knitting, manufacturing and polymers used to make gloves. With flat dip gloves, that trinity converges as it has in no other hand protection advancement.

The line dividing hand protection technology is generally considered the time before and after the arrival of coated gloves. That’s because even as breakthroughs were made in supported gloves, polymer gloves, high performance yarns and automated knitted gloves, once lined and knitted gloves could be dipped for added protection and grip, the very nature of what general-purpose gloves could do changed. No longer would general work gloves be viewed as a choice between leather or canvas.

Within this genre come breakthroughs in chemical resistant lines through formulation of superior polymers such as natural rubber, Neoprene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and nitrile. It is here we also find the precursors to flat dip technology with palm dipping techniques and more precise manufacturing processes. With natural rubber and synthetic coatings, workers were provided improved grip and handling and unparalleled dexterity.

The introduction of synthetic rubber and alternative materials provided for the diversification of the coated work glove industry. Chloroprene was first developed in the early 1930's under the trade name Neoprene® by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company as an oil-resisting rubber. It was first commercialized for coating gloves in 1942. At about the same time, polyvinyl chloride as a coating material for gloves became a popular alternative to chloroprene and natural rubber.

Parallel to coated breakthroughs were the advancements made in automated knitting. Cotton and synthetic shells and liners became lighter, tighter and more durable as automated knitting machines produced ever more sturdy, highly resilient shells. Progress in all three components of glove manufacturing – knitting, manufacturing and polymers – has culminated in the advent of flat dip production. These pioneering firsts in automated knitting owe to the diligent work of Japan’s Shima Seika, Ltd. The progress they have achieved within the last 15 years outpaces the collective advancements in automated knitting 3000 years before and since the invention of the loom.

The Intersection of Breakthroughs

Flat dip technology is simply the precise palm coating of a polymer onto an advanced knitted cotton or synthetic shell. As the name implies, flat dip is the application of polymer coating from the palm to the sides of the fingertips. Where it differs from other coated gloves is in the shell itself and the precision with which the coating is applied. The shell is characterized by its knitting, which produces an extremely lightweight and durable glove with a greater concentration of woven fabric per surface area. It conforms to the hand and resists degradation through stretching.

The coating occurs through a careful dipping process that applies the polymer evenly over a discreet and specific area of glove. It’s the accuracy and even distribution of the coating that separates the flat dip process from other coated gloves. The result is an almost seamless coated glove that offers the wearer the comfort and feel of an unsupported, formed dipped glove with the durability and ruggedness of a knitted, coated glove.

And it’s the applications that highlight the universal appeal of flat dipped gloves. From general construction to automotive assembly and repair, the glove’s comfort and grip make it a favorite of workers in nearly every industry. And because of the precision in its knitting and the possibilities available with its coatings, flat dipped gloves are fast becoming the premier of choice for electronics and computer assembly.

While it borrows some from the old Edmont Company (now Ansell, Inc. a division of Pacific Dunlop) breakthroughs in polymer coated gloves, and Best Manufacturing’s work in nitrile development, flat dip technology is one of the few breakthroughs that originated overseas. Full credit must go to Showa, Ltd. of Japan. Showa holds a patent on some of the technology and process of manufacturing flat dipped gloves.

As the name implies, it’s the precision involved with coating and dipping that separates it from other commercially available general-purpose hand protection. And while it enjoys the first-to-market position, other players are beginning to tweak and broaden the technology. As with any innovation, the bar is always raised when other industry players add their own improvements, taking the technology to new levels and unimagined, or even unintended, applications. Success attracts a lot of attention and a lot of emulators. What Next?

The future of flat dip technology seems well rooted in the industrial arena for now. The reason it has factory workers and general contractors acting like teenagers at an ‘N Sync concert is due primarily to its greatest feature – the grip. If there has remained one universal complaint with general-purpose work gloves it is the absence of or inadequacy of proper grip and dexterity. And that in turn determines to a great extent whether or not gloves get worn.

Flat dipped gloves have changed all that. As safety engineers and risk managers see injuries and lawsuits decline with greater usage, the trend will only continue to grow. The technology is also in its infancy, so more variation and improvements will undoubtedly be forthcoming.

There most certainly is a future in the retail market as the explosion of do-it-yourself (DIY) and home improvement stores continues. And as we’ve learned in this business, what a worker wears on the job is what he or she typically wants when working at home. But right now, satisfying the demands of the industrial marketplace will be priority number one.

Craig Wagner (craig.wagner@globalglove.com) is the President of a privately held glove maker, Global Glove of Ramsey, Minnesota. In addition to speaking and writing extensively about the hand protection market, Mr. Wagner is a frequent lecturer at on-site safety and quality assurance seminars for industrial workers across the country and around the world.

* Source: 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics for Occupational and Workplace Injuries

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