Smart fabrics technologies present unique opportunities—and challenges—to commercial product development.
The growth of smart fabrics technologies and applications is no longer a curiosity; it’s the new reality of high-tech fabrics, and it’s gaining ground at an impressive pace. The size of the smart fabrics market, as presented at the Smart Fabrics Summit on April 11 in Washington, D.C., was $1.9 billion worldwide in 2015; it also realized an 18 percent growth rate, which it has achieved each year since 2012. The potential in this high-tech end of the advanced textiles market is impressive, and expanding.
Four market segments share most of the “pie,” with transportation leading at 27 percent. Military/government is close behind with 21 percent; industrial and commercial applications claim 20 percent; sports and fitness has a 17 percent share. Transportation leads largely due to the growth of inflatable seatbelts and heated seats in vehicles of all kinds.
The U.S. market for smart fabrics is growing at an even faster pace, at 27 percent since 2012. The 2016 market size is estimated to be slightly more than $1 billion.
An interactive definition
Because smart fabric technology is advancing so fast, a definitive explanation is at risk of being outdated as fast as it appears in print. In terms of available commercialized products, this definition is appropriate: Smart fabrics are part of an interactive textile system that may include wearable products incorporating electronics or smart materials that sense and react to environmental stimuli and then alter their state and functionality. Smart fabrics can be passive, incorporating sensors that respond to environmental conditions, or they may be active, with sensors that react to stimuli.
In addition to the top four markets incorporating smart fabric technologies, two more have made significant investments and contributions—and they couldn’t be more different: fashion and medical/health care.
Both markets—fashion and health care—face the challenge of making smart clothing truly wearable. According to Despina Papadopoulos, founder of Principled Design (formerly Studio 5050), New York City, N.Y., and a panel participant at the Smart Fabrics Summit on April 11, communication across disciplines is partly responsible. “To connect these two industries [electronics and textiles] is quite difficult.” However, she said, “Now we have serious interest from people who can make a difference. The environment is changing rapidly.”
Qaizar Hassonjee, senior director of business development and partnerships for adidas Digital Sports, pointed out that there is no “in between” in smart fabrics applications. “It either works or it doesn’t,” he said. Hassonjee feels that there is “a lot of opportunity now to make things right here [in the U.S.].” But, he added, we also need to “get better at analyzing the data for insights into the consumer” beyond just collecting data and analyzing it.
Another panelist, Amanda Parkes, Ph.D., chief of technology and research for Manufacture New York, said that the industry is “desperately in need of training for workers across industries to be fluent in all the tools.” She points to “a cultural shift” in the fashion industry, which is now thinking about the fabrics and long-range R&D.
Medical applications, especially the home health monitoring market, are also a growth area, showing 7 percent of the 2015 market worldwide. This market segment generally faces especially stringent regulations, but standards for smart fabric applications have not progressed much past the discussion stage. It is possible, however, to check standards for the components used, said Sandeep Khatua, director of technical services for softlines, Bureau Veritas Consumer Products Services. Bureau Veritas helps its clients “come up with a testing approach,” according to Khatua.
Ira Keltz, deputy chief of the Office of the Chief Engineer, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said, “All devices that radiate energy have to be certified to assure that they’re safe.” Transmitters that are “off the shelf” are already certified.
Alpesh Shah, senior director of global business strategy and intelligence with the IEEE Standards Association, noted that the Internet of Things has been discussed from the electronics side, but it should also be discussed from the actuation side. “This story we’ve been telling is one around convergence,” Shah said. “Strange bedfellows will start to come together.”
Trends and concerns
Jeffrey C. Rasmussen, IFAI’s market research manager, reported during the Summit that the U.S. military has been leading the way in high-tech materials that have now found their way into the consumer market, with protective garments for sports and in physical monitoring. In the future, the military is looking for tents that have electricity and lighting built into the tent fabric and that incorporate photovoltaic technology for a solar power supply, Rasmussen said.
With new emphasis on health and safety issues in emerging countries, work wear for industrial and commercial environments will be a strong growth area. Smart fabrics can offer hands-free communication and provide additional safety features for police, firefighters and other first responders, as well as construction workers.
In addition to a general lack of standards for smart fabrics and a need for more standardization in regulations, all markets are particularly concerned about protecting intellectual property, a topic that was also addressed at the Summit. Panelist Lynn Rzonca, a patent attorney with Ballard Spahr LLP, said that when there are layers of technology, “each layer has to be protected.” She also stressed that U.S. patents apply only to the U.S., which offers a one-year grace period after a product announcement, which is not offered by other countries.
She and other panelists stressed the importance of taking reasonable measures early. “Protect early and often,” said Vikrum Aiyer, chief of staff, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Lesley Fair, senior attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, added that it’s important to build in technology and network security, and to do it early.
Aiyer told Summit attendees that steps have been taken “to make sure that all tools are used to help entrepreneurs succeed and are protected in the marketplace.” President Obama’s action in this regard makes it a matter of national policy.
The smart fabrics market is benefiting from rapid advances in technology from supporting industries, such as electronics and software; new trends in nanotechnology; continued research at universities; and collaborative opportunities. This market shows great promise, but it also has its weak points. A lack of capital in small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are also plagued with high production costs, is one significant hurdle. The textile industry to date has not had the relationship with other key industries (electronics, for example) that is enjoyed by other industries, such as smartphones.
The convergence of many market segments is underway, with experts in conductive fibers, fashion designers, health care professionals, military strategists and others starting to talk to each other to develop next-generation products that are both functional and commercially viable.
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source.