Jeff Rasmussen, market research manager for IFAI, provides an overview of growth and innovations in the smart fabrics market and what kinds of opportunities might accompany those advancements. He will speak on this topic Oct. 13 at IFAI Advanced Textiles Expo.
Smart fabrics—including wearable products with electronics incorporated in them; materials and structures that sense and react to external environmental conditions and alter their state and functionality; and passive textiles that sense environmental conditions—are gaining an increasingly larger portion of the “textile product pie.”
Worldwide growth rates for smart fabrics rose from $834 million in 2010 to $1.6 billion in 2014 (projected), an annual growth rate of approximately 18 percent a year. The U.S. smart fabric market grew even more, rising from $270 million in 2010 to $700 million (projected) in 2014, an annual growth rate of 27 percent.
The 2013 worldwide smart fabric and interactive textiles (SFIT) sales were dominated by the transportation market, which made up 40 percent of smart fabric sales. (The main reason for this is that the data includes heated vehicle seats.) New developments on the horizon include a soft polymer-based fiber woven into fabric, developed by Polytechnic School researchers in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The fabric has electrical properties that change depending on where it is touched. Finger movements—or swipes—can be logged and used to control air-conditioning or the volume on the radio. BMW has plans to install touchscreen fabric in the dashboard of high-end models for 2015-2016. General Motors and aircraft manufacturer Bombardier also plan to incorporate the fabrics.
Government and military uniforms made up 21 percent of 2013 smart fabric sales, followed closely by industrial and commercial products at 20 percent. The industrial and commercial market includes workwear electronics for police, firefighters and construction workers for both safety and communication—and is expected to be a major market in the future. Physiological monitoring for consumer/retail (14 percent) and medical/health (5 percent), make up the remaining market share.
Nanotechnology is a category within smart fabrics that has considerable potential for development of new materials for the textile industry. Research and development teams are already working to create military uniforms that change color to match the environment and lightweight bullet-resistant vests to monitor the wearer’s physiologic data, communicate automatically and react instantly to chemical and biological agents. Also in development are smart nanomaterials that respond to injuries and deliver drugs and antibiotics, and sensors that can indicate the presence of cancer and blood clots.
Advancements for smart textiles underground are being made as well. TenCate Geosynthetics developed the GeoDetect system, the first sensor-enabled intelligent geotextile on the market to provide soil reinforcement, structural health monitoring and an early warning system that tracks changes in geo-structures’ strain and temperature.
Opportunities accompanying the smart and interactive fabric market include enormous market growth potential and the opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises to collaborate. But there are weaknesses. The economics of production scale are difficult to attain, for one, and because of a lack of critical mass, production costs are high. Device performance is also insufficient at this point in development. However, the future of smart fabrics, with its myriad applications, is bright, as the military leads the way in developing products that can be adapted to commercial use.