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Creating the future of textiles: ‘Smart stickers’

Markets | September 1, 2012 | By:

Conformable, wireless electronic laminates offer a new approach to sensors in garments.

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

Integrating a higher degree of intelligence and performance into textiles in a transparent way. Specifically we see adding electronic functionality to garments and body-worn accessories as a growing trend in the market that is becoming reliable, cost effective and comfortable such that it can become a mass-market phenomenon in sports, wellness and health.

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

Both. Traditionally, electronic intelligence in textiles has been a technology push endeavor. That dynamic is changing. End users want this information to be seamless and transparent in appearance while being apparent in function and value. Product developers want the ability to add intelligence to their garments without having the design space constrained by the attributes of existing microelectronic systems, which tend to be heavy, bulky and boxy.

MC10 is integrating a variety of conformal electronic sensing devices into textiles and directly onto the body. Traditionally, adding electronic functionality to textiles has been an afterthought. Product designers would create a pocket to carry or hide a bulky rigid electronic device. Advances in conductive fibers have provided a solution to integrating the connectivity of these devices into garments in a more natural way, but they still often terminate in a pocket or snap solution for bolting a rigid box of electronics to the garment. Product developers are also limited in how creative they can be in design by these approaches.

MC10 bridges this gap by making thin ‘laminates’ of electronics that can be integrated in a soft, stretchable, decal-like format. These ‘smart stickers’ can be put directly on the body or integrated onto textiles such that they are low profile and move naturally with the garment. This natural integration onto garments allows for a completely new design space for body-worn textiles, in particular. Product developers can now add intelligence to garments by integrating it directly into the design.

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

Embedding seamless intelligence into the textiles we wear every day opens up entirely new avenues in medicine and health, as one example. One of the major limitations to employing new, low-cost wireless monitoring technology for wellness is compliance. Existing e-textile solutions do not address this need because the patient is aware of an unnatural box of electronics strapped to their waist or the garment, so they do not use it. If however they could wear their favorite garment, or carry the same laptop bag to work every day with embedded intelligence, they could gather valuable information about their own physiology, environment and habits that can be interpreted to provide recommendations to improve their quality of life.

Are new technologies 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?

2013 will be the year of the ‘wearable device,’ with an emphasis on recording and reporting physiological information that can be used to improve health outcomes for patients and increased performance for athletes and military professionals. Textile integration of these devices will represent a major category of activity. Multiple, launched commercial initiatives in body monitoring and other R & D efforts will be ramping up in the market next year. The next five years will bring a radical change in how we collect information about our environment and ourselves and how we use that information to improve our lives.

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?

One example is what MC10 is doing in electronics. We are reshaping electronics by allowing traditionally rigid and brittle electronics to bend, stretch and conform to the body in natural ways. This process allows us to seamlessly integrate electronics on the body through textile integration or direct mounting of electronics on the skin with electronics that are intelligent, self-powered and invisible to the user. These electronic laminates are extremely thin, can bend and stretch with the garment, and are wireless and waterproof. MC10 is leveraging the latest material science and its intersection with traditional electronic systems to build these systems. The result is a design kit for product developers to integrate an entire menu of electronic sensors into garments that integrates information about their body and their environment, bridging the gap between two radically different supply chains—textiles and electronics. New applications and business models will be enabled by this capability.

Ben Schlatka is co-founder and vice president of business development for MC10, Cambridge, Mass.

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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