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Creating the future of textiles: wear and forget

November 1st, 2013 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Technical

New smart textile products will need to collect and quantify information for the user—and offer comfort and durability at a competitive price.

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

Although advanced textiles are expanding in many directions, there’s a common thread among recent developments: giving sensory capabilities to textiles to quantify either physiological or environmental metrics.

The industry as a whole is embracing this move: the wearer can now do this in a conformal, unobtrusive, and ubiquitous way. Particularly exciting is the ability to interconnect distributed sensors via low-power wireless transmission protocols, which will enable our clothing to collect valuable information about ourselves and our environment, leading to actionable results.

Some capabilities include energy scavenging textiles that can harvest the kinetic activity of the wearer or the thermal gradients between their body and the ambient environment, thereby doing away with the need for conventional power sources. It is an exciting time for the advanced textiles and smart fabrics industry.

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

New developments in advanced textiles are being driven primarily by researchers in academia who have the intellectual freedom to ask fundamental questions about augmenting the capabilities of fabrics. Specifically, researchers have addressed market needs regarding the use of fabrics for power storage, sensing and biomedical applications.

Academic researchers have been laying the foundations for continued development along these lines. However, we are starting to see substantial innovation sourced from the startup community. I am excited to see this accelerating, creating a synergistic ecosystem in the advanced textiles arena that will enable these entities to address the requirements of the wearer.

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

Body-area sensor networks have garnered substantial interest, and we are seeing traction build among key players in the wearables market. With this capability, the notion of ‘quantified self’ has been growing in awareness, which will offer the ability to track physiological statistics throughout one’s daily routine. Early adopters will likely be athletes and fitness enthusiasts who would benefit from detailed information about their physical activity and performance. This will eventually trickle down to general consumer applications.

The ability to acquire health-related information and relay the results to the physician for archiving, trending, and review during routine checkups might not be too far off in the future. Electrozyme seeks to capitalize on the fitness segment of these emergent markets by enabling the wearer of our bio-sensing textile devices to assess muscular exertion, fatigue, hydration levels and electrolyte loss/balance, among others.

Are new technologies finding their markets? If so, where is the most robust growth occurring? If not, what’s holding up the implementation of new technologies?

Most growth opportunities in smart fabrics will continue to be sourced from the generalized healthcare segment, which can cope with the higher margins linked to new technologies. A few military applications using smart fabrics have surfaced, particularly in battlefield triage scenarios. Continued development in this field will eventually result in utilitarian products for civilian use.

Consumer applications in the personal wellness and fitness markets are slowly materializing, although some key challenges to implementation in widely-deployable products remain: robustness to mechanical deformation and strain, and resiliency to the rigors of routine wear, not to mention conventional laundering. However, I would say that we will witness a proliferation in the number and capabilities of smart fabrics on the market within the next few years.

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?

Most efforts in the past have targeted the addition of new capabilities without enough attention to the comfort or the robustness of the garment. Novel processes and materials must be developed to ensure comfort and conformity with the anatomical features of the body, as well as durability with routine wear. Any electronic functionality integrated into the textile must be sufficiently sturdy, unobtrusive, and require minimal skill for the user to operate.

The most compelling products will be “wear-and-forget,” where devices will collect physiological and/or environmental information without requiring the user to do anything. Furthermore, new manufacturing approaches must be pursued to make these textiles fit with the pricing demands of the market. Still, there could be new opportunities for smart fabrics with certain sensory devices, where replaceable sensing elements or fee-based software applications can generate recurring revenue streams.

Dr. Windmiller is co-founder and CEO of Electrozyme LLC, Encinitas, Calif., which makes flexible, real-time, sweat-analysis sensors.

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. Visit www.safetyfabrics.com

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