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Bold predictions: What’s realistic for smart textiles

Business | August 1, 2016 | By:

Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) nanowebs with fibers of about 250nm can be functionalized with metal oxides to create smart self-cleaning filters. Photo: Dr. Uday Turaga, Texas Tech University.
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) nanowebs with fibers of about 250nm can be functionalized with metal oxides to create smart self-cleaning filters. Photo: Dr. Uday Turaga, Texas Tech University.

The words smart textiles have generated much discussion in the industry and the media recently. India-based market research firm Markets and Markets has estimated that the value of this high-tech textile sector will grow to $4.7 billion by 2020. Given that the smart textile industry was estimated to be less than $1 billion in 2014, this anticipated figure shows a phenomenal cumulative annual growth rate of 30 percent.

In a speech given April 1, when Dr. Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the new public/private consortium Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), he shared a prediction made by Dr. Yoel Fink, a member of the MIT faculty and the director and CEO of AFFOA. Fink described the potential of AFFOA as the fiber equivalent of Moore’s Law. “You might call it the ‘AFFOA Law’: the number of devices in a fiber will double every 12 months, inventing an industry that does not yet exist. Not just a handful of products, but a whole new industry,” Dr. Reif reported.

Because the smart textiles sector is evolving and not yet really defined, to project its future growth may be premature. Nevertheless, it sets the stage for part of our industry that has tremendous enthusiasm among stakeholders. This mood is quite evident in the government as well, with heavy investment in the AFFOA, which has the overarching goal to revolutionize textile manufacturing in the United States.

What is “smart”?

Smart textiles are those that are nontraditional, have interactive functionalities and offer new or non-commodity applications. This definition is broad-based to accommodate the diverse nature of the value-added textiles sector. It is not in the best interests of the industry to dwell too much on establishing a concise definition. However, as the field is nascent and emerging, it would be useful to group those sectors that can be brought into the smart textiles folder.

It will be a challenge to adopt a universally acceptable definition to categorize this sector, because it can involve the entire fiber-to-fashion supply chain in developing new advanced textile products. An inclusive description could read this way: Smart textiles are next-generation advanced textiles for which applications are evolving and, in some cases, yet to be developed.

Smart textiles can have functionalities that allow them to actively sense, shape or protect. This categorization is broad based and can include almost all forms of textile structures that have improved functionalities and enhanced applications. The current need is to convince the industry to agree with the basic understanding of smart fabrics, so that the next steps to growth can be undertaken in product and applications development, standardization—and tackling marketing and trade issues.

Characteristics and applications

Nontraditional textiles with improved functionalities need not specify raw materials or manufacturing processes, but can focus on characteristics, such as being active and reactive, and on applications that go beyond the existing ones. Examples would include wrist bands and vests with electronic sensors for monitoring the body’s vital signs, geotextile products that can monitor and adjust to varying dynamic stress levels, and clothing that can measure ambient temperature and provide comfortable thermal effects.

We can differentiate smart textiles from traditional industrial textiles in other ways. For example: nanofibers have value-added properties, such as having an increased surface area but still being lightweight—characteristics that are valuable in filtration applications. These are not smart textiles because they are not active, based on the definition given. If, however, these nanowebs are made catalytic to cleave toxic compounds using metal oxides, they become self-cleaning filters. These self-detoxifying nano-filters delineate how industrial textiles are different from actively functional smart textiles.

The tasks ahead

The important tasks confronting the industry are: developing standards to govern the quality of smart textiles; testing these new and value-added applications; quantifying characteristics; evaluating safety requirements; and developing product labels for sales and marketing.

As the smart textiles field is emerging, issues involving international trade must also be addressed. It’s important to work with the World Customs Organization and other agencies concerning tariff codes. As the U.S. is the leader in the smart fabrics field, it can be an important player in export markets, making trade issues especially important. Trade associations such as the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) and Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) can work together as synergistic allies to create awareness of this industry sector and facilitate trade.

The U.S. and other developed economies, such as the countries in the European Union, have advantages in developing and exporting textiles due to the quality of their products. Professional standardization bodies such as the Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and other bodies, such as ASTM Intl., the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) and the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI) have developed many standards related to textiles, pulp and paper products. In the case of nonwovens, the U.S.-headquartered INDA and Belgium-based European Disposables and Nonwovens Association (EDANA) have developed standards for nonwovens. Such an effort is also needed for the smart textiles sector.

A creative approach

As smart textiles are generally multi­component products with one or more non-textile components such as electronics, organic and inorganic products or biomimetic materials, it will be useful to develop standards for the applications of the final smart textile products. For example, a wearable textile with medical and sport applications should need standards to quantify its end-use applications, such as monitoring the body’s vital signs.

Although durability of the product to mechanical and multiple stresses is important, it would not be logical to use existing standards to test laundering and mechanical durability of smart textiles that have electronics incorporated in them. The industry must find creative ways to develop new standards. For wearable electronic textiles, standards for testing the new and intended application will have to be developed, which in this case could be a sensor for blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs. Existing testing standards for wash durability and mechanical strength can be used to test the textile component and provide supplementary quality information.

International trade bodies in the industry, such as IFAI, can work with professional standardization bodies like ASTM Intl. and AATCC to develop application-specific standards for smart textiles. AATCC has recently created a technical committee on wearable electronics to look into standardization requirements for electronic textiles.

Sustainability and safety

One important product aspect that has not garnered quite as much attention is the safety attributes of multicomponent smart textiles when used on humans. In the case of wearable electronic textiles that have chips and electronic circuits, safety issues must be taken into account.

The sustainability of these products is another important aspect of the problem; the smart textiles sector should be proactive in this issue, and efforts must be made to make these new materials and end products environmentally and economically sustainable. Safety standards and sustainability benchmarks must be addressed.

What’s next?

Because IFAI serves members and readers who manufacture and market specialty textiles, it is in a position to take a leading role in categorizing and standardizing products, and can coordinate with national and international bodies to evolve meaningful test methods and trade codes. There should be good outreach with nontraditional textile schools in the U.S., including schools that deal with material science disciplines, because the smart textiles field is truly multidisciplinary. Outreach and engagement with all stakeholders, including the departments of commerce of governments involved, will be needed for the growth and marketing of smart textiles and applications in the future.

Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., FTA (Honorary), is a professor in the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University.

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