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The world’s fastest lifesaver

As consumers and governments look for ways to make roads safer, a surprising contributor may be the industrial yarn manufacturing sector. As innovation makes these materials better, the airbags made from these are becoming more effective than ever.


It was 1951 when German engineer Walter Linderer and American industrial engineer John W. Hetrick walked in to their countries’ respective patent offices, half a world away from each other. Independently, both had developed a similar idea: Installing bags that quickly inflate with air during automobile crashes could save lives by helping to protect passengers from impact.

Neither of the inventors could have imagined the importance his invention would gain over the next 65 years. Today, in countries like the U.S., India and Brazil, automobile manufacturers are required to install frontal airbags. Even in countries with no law requiring them, airbags are commonplace safety features and have been adapted beyond the traditional frontal versions to include side, curtain and knee airbags. They are also used in the aerospace industry and on some motorcycles. Together, the airbag industry has an expected combined annual growth rate of 4.6% by 2021, according to market research and consulting firm Lucintel.[i]

What is behind the demand? Consumers and governments increasingly require better safety features in their vehicles. Road traffic injuries are one of the leading causes of preventable deaths, claiming more than 1.2 million lives annually worldwide, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015.”[ii] In recent years, a stronger push for road and vehicle safety features (like airbags) has caused those fatalities to plateau, despite increases in population and mobility.[iii]

Making Safety Features Better

The concept of the airbag is relatively straightforward: Upon impact, the bag quickly inflates to help prevent injury to those in the vehicle. Airbags typically inflate fully within 20 to 30 milliseconds, giving them the reputation as the fastest lifesavers in the world.

However, creating strong, dependable materials from which to construct those bags is not as simple. Because of their critical role in passenger and operator safety, airbags must be constructed of reliable, durable industrial yarns that can easily withstand the conditions of such fast inflation. The typical choice in airbag manufacturing has been polyamide 6.6. However, improvements in polyester (PET) yarns as well as a significant cost advantage against polyamide yarns have made them a popular option for airbag manufacturers.

“The continuous improvement of PET resins and processes allows it to substitute PA66 as the yarn for side, head and knee airbags, especially,” says Andreas May, with Oerlikon Barmag, a leading provider of industrial yarn manufacturing equipment and technology.

Oerlikon Barmag’s experience and innovation in yarn production is now giving airbag manufacturers new options. Industrial yarns can be made from a variety of polymers, which are spun into filaments of different fineness. Innovative technology has improved polymer quality, which lets the yarn manufacturer produce finer single filaments, he says.

Why does that matter? Since one manmade fiber consists of many filaments, finer filament quality means that the material offers advantages in manufacturing. Further, it has a positive impact on the end product’s quality.

Just as Linderer and Hetrick devoted their creative and scientific abilities to saving lives, Oerlikon Barmag’s team of engineers and innovators are looking at new ways to improve the materials from which airbags are made. With better materials that provide strength and durability in various applications, these unexpected heroes are finding innovative solutions to meet the demand.

By Gwen Moran

[i] Lucintel, “Growth Opportunities in the Global Automotive Airbag Market 2016-2021: Trends, Forecast, and Market Analysis.” July 2016.

[ii] World Health Organization, “Global Report on Road Safety 2015,” p. x.

[iii] World Health Organization, “Global Report on Road Safety 2015,” p. 2.

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