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Smart fabrics, smart move

June 29th, 2016 / By: / Business, Marketing

From research to manufacturing reality through the AFFOA Institute.

The AFFOA initiative provides an exciting opportunity to enhance the functionality
of the fabrics that all of us interact with every day,” says Dr. Julianna Abel, University of Minnesota mechanical engineering assistant professor. These functional fabrics, or “smart fabrics,” can include “multi-material fabrics for medical and rehabilitative purposes that can monitor health and provide sensory feedback to the wearer,” says Abel.

The Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute, announced in April 2016 by United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, brings a consortium of 89 manufacturers, universities and industry partners together to form a new revolutionary fibers and textiles manufacturing innovation hub. As the eighth of the Obama Administration’s ongoing Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (MII), the $317 million initiative, to be led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will help accelerate the revival of textile manufacturing in the United States. The focus is on investing in research and developing new technologies around textiles with extraordinary properties, as well as training the workforce needed to operate and maintain the production of these new textiles that can “see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, or monitor health,” according to a press release from the Office of The White House Press Secretary.

From research to market

The proposal for the institute was led by professor Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). This unique cross-disciplinary and industry partnership, says Fink, has the potential to create a whole new industry based on breakthroughs in new fiber materials and manufacturing. The challenge faced by the AFFOA is to take much of the research and material innovation that comes from the partnership and bring it to market.

“It turns out there is no company or university in the world that knows how to do all this,” says Fink. “Instead of creating a single brick-and-mortar center, we set out to assemble and organize companies and universities that have manufacturing and ‘making’ capabilities into a network—a ‘distributed foundry’ capable of addressing the manufacturing challenges.”

“Participating in this group of visionaries from government, academia and industry—who are all motivated by the goal of advancing a new model of American textile manufacturing and helping to develop new products for the public and defense sectors—has been an exciting process,” says Aleister Saunders, Drexel University’s senior vice provost for research and a leader of its functional fabrics center. “These centers of innovation will be able to leverage intellectual capital and regional manufacturing expertise to drive forward new ideas and new applications that will revolutionize textile manufacturing across the nation.”

A wide cross-section of industries should benefit from these innovative fibers and textiles, such as apparel, automotive, consumer products and electronics, and medical devices. “Fibers and fabrics are ubiquitous,” says Fink. “Our institute will go everywhere a fiber and fabric goes.”

Internet of Things

For many years, speculation has been growing to propose where these new materials may soon appear, a part of the “Internet of Things” zeitgeist line of thinking. These uses can include fibers and yarns with integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells and other devices and advanced materials to create textiles and fabrics that can take on extraordinary qualities. The AFFOA’s mission is to accelerate the technology transfer from the group to better enable defense and commercial applications. Part of that effort will be assisted by the new institute’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., where a prototyping facility is being made available to the partnership to help start-ups test their first products and scale up new technologies into full production.

IFAI member firm Offray Specialty Narrow Fabrics (OSNF), Bernardsville, N.J., was honored to be invited by Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa., to join the initiative. “When we were approached by Drexel to participate in AFFOA,” says Barbara Weightman, director of marketing for OSNF, “we immediately saw the potential to join forces with industry partners and academia, open up significant new opportunities in functional fabric product development, support new manufacturing processes, create a pipeline of strategic partners who embrace advanced manufacturing and leverage locally-based innovative ecosystems to generate economic growth—all of which will have a profound impact on our own business and the fiber and textile industries throughout the U.S.”

Offray is a manufacturer of advanced specialty narrow fabrics engineered for high-performance applications in numerous critical first responder, industrial and military situations. “Our breadth of experience in personal protection equipment (PPE), aerospace, industrial safety and e-textiles is in direct synergy with AFFOA’s design for the innovation network,” says Weightman.

The next step

A critical next step, according to Weightman, will be working closely with the regional development hubs (Center for Functional Fabrics-CFF), where Offray will interact with Drexel’s experts and industry partners in all aspects of functional fabric research, product development, prototyping and scalable pilot production. Parallel with the material and manufacturing innovations will be the need for industry standards. “As always, there are some challenges associated with new growth platforms,” says Weightman. “Smart fabric integrated systems combine textiles, electronics and media platforms in wearable technology. Label verification, quality assurance testing and new standards for wearables are being evaluated by leading standards associations.” Individually they may address some of the unforeseen technical issues that may result from the AFFOA’s efforts, but together they must address the possible issues that will certainly happen when all three of these areas converge within new products being researched by the partnership.

“Currently there are no industry standards for introducing new materials into textile manufacturing,” says Genevieve Dion, associate professor and the director of Drexel’s Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, and one of AFFOAs research leads. “If we can bridge that gap by offering the research and testing necessary to establish standards and develop processes for using new materials in manufacturing, this institute can remove that roadblock so our nation’s economy can move forward.”

Partnerships

An extensive alliance of research universities was recruited by MIT—some 32 universities, colleges and technical schools, including Cornell, Florida Atlantic, Iowa State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rice and UC-Davis, in addition to MIT, Minnesota and Drexel mentioned above—and paired with 52 companies and nonprofit organizations, including Bose, Corning, DuPont, Intel, Medtronic, Milliken, New Balance, Nike, Steelcase, VF Corp., and Warwick Mills. (For a complete list, visit www.rle.mit.edu/fabric.) The alliance is supported by five state governments and regional organizations: State of California, State of Georgia, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, City of Philadelphia, and Industrial Development Agency–Orange County, N.Y.

“From a macro level,” says Weightman, “this collaborative consortium offers the domestic textile industry a huge opportunity to drive investment in high-tech state-of-the-art equipment and growth in specialized job opportunities.”

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is a writing/marketing consultant to architects and designers and
a frequent contributor to the Review.

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