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Commercializing smart textiles

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The smart textile market may be in its infancy, but like most technology it will have an exponential evolution until it gets its footing, and then more interest and money will be applied to it, says David O’Keefe, president and CEO of Advanced Fabric Technologies LLC in Houston, Texas. He believes it is starting to move into mainstream applications, and the field is wide open.

“There are so many things that make a fabric smart that it will drive itself. The technology is there, all we need to do is package it properly,” says O’Keefe. “If you’ve got a good idea that works, you’ve got to exploit that as best you can.”

According to Dr. Tricia Wilson, president and principal, Fabric Works LLC, Arlington, Mass., there are exciting developments in the area of flexible, plastic electronics that will impact textiles as they mature. “I see a melding of the two industries in the future, especially in the arena of large area electronics,” Wilson says. “Textiles will be required to maintain the flexible character yet provide mechanical support. The e-textile industry will be well poised to facilitate these applications and, in many circumstances, provide the larger power or communication networks for these flexible electronics in the textile support itself.”

There are areas in which commercializing smart textiles make sense from a sustainable business model standpoint, says Wilson. Medical monitoring and personal heating applications are some of the “sweet spots” that are growing. The military generally leads the way, but with decreased government funding, so much of the action has shifted to apparel, which operates on a smaller economy of scale.

“You have to have a really kicking application,” she says, “so companies are trying to put some amount of functionality into a previously existing textile and then the consumer has to decide if that functionality is something they need to have that significant upcharge.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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