The industry meets virtually to discuss innovations,cybersecurity and collaboration.
by Janet Preus
The Smart Fabrics Summit, presented by the U.S. Department of Commerce in collaboration with Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), was held virtually this year. Its speakers covered a range of topics, with special emphasis on cybersecurity and collaborative partnerships.
From innovation to commercial success
Two sessions, including the Summit’s closing keynote address, focused on collaborations among industry, academic or government partners. Dr. Alexander Stolyarov, CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), provided an overview of recent technological breakthroughs in advanced functional fibers and fabrics. AFFOA, headquartered near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) Institute, a network founded in 2016 and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
AFFOA had a range of successful projects to report. Stolyarov made note of several innovations in process, including multi-material fiber microsystems—fabrics and fibers with the technology embedded inside, so there are several materials in one fiber, as opposed to a traditional single polyester, for example.
“Innovation on the fiber level is the next frontier in smart textiles,” Stolyarov said. However, he also wondered, “Why haven’t we seen more products with high-tech fiber technologies?”
Stolyarov said AFFOA is working on the issues that prevent innovative technologies from getting to the commercial product stage. Innovative products demand innovative business models, he noted, the technology (or product) needs to solve “real and important problems,” and there has to be a scalable manufacturing process in place.
Stolyarov cited several project examples that illustrate the institute’s ability to address the process, using an “application-driven approach to technology development,” he said.
“We have capabilities all across the U.S.,” he said, including the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN), which enables rapid fabric prototyping, including integrating smart technologies into yarns and ropes; wovens, nonwovens and knits; and composites.
Applications being developed by AFFOA member participants include shape-shifting climate adaptive garments; electronically controlled color-changing fabrics; smart textile interfaces for physical controls; pressure-sensing fabrics with swipe-sensing capabilities; touch sensitive car consoles and passive cooling fabrics. Flexible hybrid electronics and robotics assembly (cut and sew) were cited as emerging capabilities.
Stolyarov also offered a vision for smart fabrics of the future where fabrics are engineered to provide sophisticated services. He sees a “Moore’s law for fibers” kicking in, where the capabilities of a single fiber strand advance rapidly, just as computer speed and power have grown exponentially, according to the original Moore’s law. This could make fabric computers and artificially intelligent fabrics possible. As these technologies continue to advance, fabrics could transition from goods to a platform for services, he said.
Academics and industry
Dr. Jesse Jur, North Carolina State University (NC State), also discussed academic and industry partnerships. Jur’s Nano-EXtended Textiles (NEXT) group is working on giving new characteristics to polymer films and fibers, focusing on electronic and electro-optical modifications. Programs at NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles work with dozens of industry partners.
Jur noted a senior design course where each student starts with an industry participant that has an actual problem to solve. “The students work with the company from day one,” he said. “The whole idea in a proper design course is that you filter ideas and come up with a solution.”
As an example, students have worked with Under Armour® Inc. to use down fiber waste in its products, “helping them find different processes, different binder materials,” Jur said. “Now this material is highly valued [at the company].
“The students are incredibly innovative,” he added. In the early years of the program, students developed a wearable motherboard. More recent projects include garments that can provide sensory feedback to the wearer.
“The smart gloves technology space is really booming right now,” he said. Car maker Tesla has gotten into the act with “The Tesla Suit,” which provides haptic feedback to the wearer, capturing both motion and biometrics.
Advanced technologies come at a cost, however, and partnerships face multiple challenges, including managing different expectations and timelines. The industry partner risks validating the “early stage transition of a complex system technology in a product line,” Jur pointed out.
The university participant must balance the value of its own research productivity “when that research is unable to meet strategic gaps in technology needed by brands,” he said. Ultimately, the “need” is to demonstrate that the innovation can readily be realized and integrated into the final customer’s product line.
HanesBrands Inc. has formed a highly productive work relationship with NC State and Jur’s NEXT research group, which developed the company’s Champion Lit Logo, which has LEDs linked to fiber optics with wireless recharging. NEXT has also developed with Hanes a platform for a “Seam Skeleton” for creating e-textile garments. The research group provides services, components, prototypes and platforms for its partnering businesses.
Standards and safety
Chris Jorgensen, IPC, served as moderator for panelists Stephanie Rodgers, Apex Mills; Chris Mitchell, IPC; and Jacqueline Campbell, Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), discussing smart fabric product standards and safety issues.
Campbell pointed out the importance of determining if a new smart product should be classified as medical or consumer, as the regulations are quite different. “Design, marketing and other claims could put one product in either jurisdiction,” Campbell said. “Reach out [to the CPSC] about a new product.”
Emerging hazards was a theme in this discussion, which offered a checklist for “establishing a safety culture,” with these action points:
- Make sure you have everyone at the table—legal, technical, design.
- Design safety into the product and communicate the commitment to safety throughout the supply chain and to consumers.
- Define how it should be used, and plan for any unforeseeable uses beyond what the product was first designed for.
- Maintain quality standards throughout the product life cycle. This includes having a test program beyond minimum standards. There may be voluntary consensus standards, which are not formal standards or tests, but they may be more stringent than is required.
- Institute a proactive compliance program and keep up with standards and communicate them throughout your supply chain.
Cybersecurity for manufacturers
“The Importance of Cybersecurity for Manufacturers” was presented by David Stieren, division chief in the Programs and Partnerships Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a non-regulatory agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that provides technical assistance to manufacturers.
As an extension-based program, MEP “has no center that is a super-center,” Stieren said. “We rely heavily on our partners and other centers. We target small to medium manufacturers that make up about 99 percent of the demographic in the U.S.”
Pat Toth, MEP cybersecurity program manager, spoke in more detail about cybersecurity and U.S. small businesses. “Small businesses and small manufacturers are particularly vulnerable, because they don’t have the means to prevent or detect a cyber attack,” Toth said. As such, “They may be seen as an entry point into another space.”
She recommended that manufacturers take a series of steps in order to establish and maintain security. “You need to formalize these policies and procedures, and your employees need to know what they are.” Summarized, the steps are “protect, detect, respond and recover.”
“Protect” means that filters, encryptions and systems are updated, and that old equipment is disposed of properly, with all information removed from the technology. Detecting a problem could include taking note of an employee who changes passwords several times a day or employees who log on late at night, for example.
A company’s procedures must include an organized response: who should be notified, what action steps should be taken and taking advantage of cyber security insurance. Once an incident occurs, backups should be ready to be implemented.
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source and a contributing editor to Specialty Fabrics Review.
SIDEBAR: Cybersecurity resources
The NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is a non-regulatory agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that provides technical assistance to manufacturers, including cybersecurity resources. Pat Toth, MEP cybersecurity program manager, advised Smart Fabrics Summit attendees that to do business with the DoD, a new program concerning cybersecurity requires “reaching a certain level of maturity.” Visit www.nist.gov/mep for information about this program and other MEP resources.