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Creating the future of textiles: Wearable electronics

February 1st, 2013 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Markets, Technical

More imaginative approaches will drive wearable electronics markets in the future.

What are the most intriguing developments in your area of advanced textiles?

One of the most exciting areas for me has been smart materials and systems. These have been around for a number of years, but are only now starting to really come into their own. There are a number of reasons for this, such as technological advances, as well as social, demographic, economic and environmental factors.

Integrated wearable electronics have been held back for a long time because of the power supply and robustness of the technologies themselves. Having to remove devices before washing was not really “wearable” in my opinion. With lithium batteries, power supply is less of an issue and the electronics themselves have become less bulky and tougher.

The product for me that saw that change was RipCurl’s H-Bomb Wetsuit. It has an integrated heating element placed along the spinal column and powered by a small lithium battery. It was slim, unobtrusive, worked not just in water but in salt water, so for me it was truly wearable.

The other area of smart fabrics that has evolved in recent years has been in wellness and health. This is in response to the changing demographic in Western society where we are seeing people live longer and more independent lives. The original materials in this area came from Japan a decade ago. Technically advanced, the handle and aesthetic were poor, so they did not succeed in Western markets.
Now we have fabrics that offer better performance in good tactility, drape and aesthetics. Alongside that are accompanying technologies, such as embedded and stretchable electronics and sensors. There are some interesting solutions also emerging on power with small flexible batteries the size of a credit card, and there is a strong interest in alternative energy sources.

What are the obstacles to smart
fabric development?

To quote the English poet and artist William Blake “What is now proved was once only imagined.” Blake lived at the time of the Industrial Revolution in England, yet these words seem even more relevant in today’s technological age.

One of the biggest obstacles to the development of good design using smart materials is imagination. The mistakes of the early plastics industry are repeated again and again, as the technologies are used as an alternative to an existing material or product. Smaller, faster, thinner is all very well, but the really exciting products will only emerge when designers put aside preconceptions about materials and technologies and look afresh at what some of these new advances can offer. Some concept car designs, for instance, do this really well. In BMW’s Gina, the car body is made of a flexible fabric, which poses this question: Why does a car have to be hard and not soft?

The scalability of nanotechnology is still an issue. We have seen some great advances, such as Helen Storey’s Catalytic Clothing that uses a nanotechnology coating to purify the air. These are exciting but do make me wonder what we might see if we can get to the stage where we can produce the whole material, not just the coating, using the technology. I am also keeping an eye on photovoltaic technologies as they become more flexible—literally.

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?

Having just written a book, Advanced Textiles for Health and Well-being, my answer is probably going to be a little predictable when I say health and well-being! There are so many layers and opportunities that range from demographic trends (with people living longer and more independent lives) to sports and lifestyle health and fitness, as well as core patient and outpatient care. This is already a very strong area and looks set to continue over the next decade.

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?

I think that monitoring and self-diagnostic products will become more sophisticated and discrete everywhere from elderly and patient care to fitness and workplace. Privacy is an aspect that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency and I do hope this will happen soon. MIT’s Prof. Sandy Pentland has some good ideas on this in terms of managing and ownership of personal data. We are also seeing sustainable and ethical issues being coupled together and applied to the wider textile industry.

The next decade I believe will see these become standard in the same way as we now regard fit-for-purpose as standard for any material or product. There are some interesting new business models appearing in this area and I hope this continues. All of this could have a positive benefit on society as users, manufacturers and developers.

The third trend that I see evolving is the relationships between established and emerging economies. This is already starting to change and we should see some further progress on that in the next decade to the benefit of all.

Marie O’Mahony is professor of advanced fashion and textiles, OCADU, Toronto, Canada and visiting professor, University of the Arts, London, U.K.

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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