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Creating the future of textiles: Electronic textiles

October 1st, 2012 / By: / Markets

Lessons learned from smart phone success can be applied to e-textile development.

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

The transition of nanotechnology to scale up production and applications research is an exciting development to keep tabs on. One of the challenges in electronic textiles has been the hand, drape, integration and wear of conductive materials in fabrics. Using conductive particles that are nano sized opens up coatings, printing and other technologies like flocking, to be used in concert with non-conductive conventional textiles. In this way, we are able to produce devices in markets where first-generation solutions could not perform.

Another area of interest is plastic electronics. This field has been developing alongside electronic textiles with the similar goal of producing flexible, robust electronics. The technology base has now advanced enough to make co-developments a trend that both industries should be investigating. Both technology bases have strengths and weaknesses, some overlap, and those that don’t are areas where co-development would benefit the other industry and move products to market.

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

At the moment, the researchers are driving the market, something that is often seen in out-of-the-box technology developments. Disruptive technologies often initially struggle while consumers develop a mental picture of what the technology could provide them.

One area of rapid adoption—and one that companies should watch—is the do-it-yourself community. This group has embraced the field of e-textiles and is hungry for components that allow them to explore ideas for functional textiles. This is both a small-stage market for companies working in this area, as well as a fertile ground to see how consumers modify the textiles for their own needs. There are product ideas to be mined and refined for the larger market.

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?

One of the things holding up the technology base is the availability of smaller batteries. Consumers who purchase textile products dislike the bulk and weight of battery systems, as textiles are often lightweight. This is ironic, as they have accepted smartphones, which have a similar form factor and weight. We have to start thinking about the items that restrict adoption and the consumer’s value proposition. Once an object’s value to everyday actions outweighs its detractions, users are willing to overlook the negatives and find ways to adapt to the size and weight. At this point, we are so focused on single-application device systems for textiles that the negatives of the batteries outweigh the positives. Standardization in the industry might drive us toward solutions that would enable many devices to run off of the same platform, delivering better value, which drives up acceptance rates.

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 of the areas that leaders in the electronic-textile industry will have to watch closely is the development and use of personal electronic platforms. While bulky and difficult to attach to your body, smartphones have been enthusiastically embraced. This can be seen as competition to the e-textile platform or be turned into an opportunity to develop “soft-wear” apps that interface with electronics users already own.

Many companies in the toy, sports and health fields have already realized this and are using the platform to drive down the development timeframe and initial consumer investment at the store for their products. This is a trend that we see expanding in the next decade as smartphones continue to penetrate the market. We are excited to start working with our customers to take advantage of these trends for their own product lines.

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

I think that the quick adoption of smartphones and the potential it has to allow consumers to adopt “soft-wear” apps makes us respond in a different way today. Previously, we gravitated to all-in-one products that functioned out of the box. Users are now more apt to buy components that are separate and require interface among products from multiple companies. This requires research teams to think differently and deal with an industry that is new to them, calling for expertise development outside of their industry. We are rapidly adapting to that model.

Dr. Patricia Wilson is president and principal of Fabric Works, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm in the field of e-textiles. She has experience designing, prototyping and moving e-textiles systems into production in both the military and commercial sectors. She will be speaking Nov. 6 at the 2012 IFAI Advanced Textiles & Safety Conference in Boston.

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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