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Creating the future of textiles: E-textile technology

Advanced Textiles, Business, Markets | May 1, 2012 | By:

E-textile technology for personal safety and health applications will someday provide smart garments for everyday wear.

What are the most exciting or intriguing developments in the industry in advanced textiles?

The most exciting development is the potential for textiles to sense and respond to their environments and situations. In particular, integrating sensors and computational devices into fabrics will enable the fabrics to provide a much richer set of capabilities than is currently possible. These electronic textiles (e-textiles) will allow us to build smart garments, as well as home and office furnishings that look and feel like their everyday counterparts while being able to sense our presence, monitor our health, and dynamically adapt to our individual needs.

Who is driving new developments, the researchers or the market?

For the most part, researchers are creating the new capabilities for textiles. While the market is beginning to see the possibilities for intelligent textiles, the technology will only take off when the market drives the deployment of these capabilities in the form of compelling new products.

What is the market demanding and how is your company or research team responding to market demands?

The market demand with the most potential is found in the area of smart garments. I have worked in the area of wearable computing for about 20 years, and for the first 10 of those years, nearly all of the wearable computers were not integrated into clothing but into large, hard-shell devices in backpacks or belt-mounted applications. However, with e-textiles we can make wearable computers that look and feel like everyday clothing. We are starting to see research prototypes and even commercially available products where at least some aspect is integrated into the fabric.

For example, as part of our work in the Virginia Tech E-Textiles Lab, we have created several clothing items with the computer network woven into the fabric and connected between the pieces of the fabric that are sewn together. These garments can sense the motions of the wearer and classify the person’s activity, while at the same time monitor the environment and correlate the activities with physiological measurements such as heart rate. We have also constructed non-wearable applications, such as rugs or upholstery, but clothing is more interesting to us. We are challenged by clothing’s inherent design constrains—it moves with the user and cannot be plugged into the wall for power.

As research and development progress, the market will need to build intelligent textiles that can perform several applications at the same time, rather than single-purpose textiles that have limited usefulness and are often only novelties. We see similarities to the early cell-phone era: In the1990s, cell phones were bulky and single purpose, but today’s phones are sleek and combine multiple functions.

To move toward this vision, we are developing hardware and software techniques that allow the same textile to simultaneously support several applications, and that allow the textile to be easily modified for new applications without having to redesign it. We are also developing a design and simulation environment for e-textiles so that we can more quickly create a working prototype. Our goal is to support application domain experts who need a smart textile without them having to be experts in electronics or computer programming.

Are new technologies are finding their applications and markets? If so, where is the most robust growth occurring, or likely to occur in the near future? If not, what’s holding up the implementation of new technologies?

The most robust growth in the near future is likely to occur in sports, home health monitoring, emergency response and personal protective equipment. These application areas require sensing and giving feedback to the user, which can be provided by an intelligent textile, and all of them can bear higher costs if there is a clear benefit.

Sports training (on the consumer side) also has growth potential because it’s not encumbered by the regulatory issues of the other areas. The consumer sports base has a relatively large number of early adopters who are willing to try new approaches to gain an edge on their competition or to improve their fitness. So the first market successes will likely be in sports. We may even already have them in the NuMetrex sports bra with integrated heart rate monitor and the Nike+ iPod sensors for Nike shoes.

One thing that’s holding up the implementation of new technologies is the incompatibility of existing manufacturing practices and form factors in the textiles and electronics industries. The e-textiles market could be expanded quite a bit with just a few relatively simple items, for example, electrical connectors that are compatible with being worn in clothing.

What new products and/or processes are being developed now that will have the most profound impact on the way in which end product manufacturers do business tomorrow?

The most profound impact will be the notion of a smart textile as a means of selling a service rather than a product. To draw a comparison, cell phone companies do not make their profit on the phones themselves. They make their profit by selling the phone at or below cost and then charging for services.

Smart fabrics will provide similar opportunities. For example, at the Future Textiles Expert Summit last year in Denmark, a concept that the attendees were most interested in was a shirt that could change the pattern it displayed. This example is just a concept because the yarn technology that it would require has not been developed yet. But if it were available, then a clothing company could sell the shirt at or below cost but make money by selling new designs for the shirt pattern. Rather than making a one-time profit when the shirt is sold, the shirt has the potential to be a revenue stream. Such a business model also improves sustainability, because customers can update their wardrobes by simply buying new patterns.

Research and manufacturing smart fabrics and wearable electronics continue to make strides. Application areas outside of fashion have possibilities for impacting our daily lives.

Tom Martin is associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the E-Textiles Lab at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. He serves on the IFAI Expo Americas 2012 Advanced Textiles and Safety Education Advisory Committee.
Safety and Technical Products (S+TP), a division of IFAI, represents the interests of the textile industry in safety, protective, interactive, medical and other high-tech applications.

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