Interest, investment and applications in wearable technology show significant growth patterns.
IFAI’s Advanced Textiles Conference in Anaheim, Calif., in October offered attendees a variety of opportunities to learn about the current and projected market, new product offerings and breakthrough technologies in the wearable technology sector. IFAI’s market research manager Jeff Rasmussen reported that the worldwide smart fabrics market is growing at an annual rate of about 18 percent from about $984 million in 2011 to a projected $1.9 billion in 2015.
According to British market researcher IDTechEx, the wearable technology market will grow to $70 billion by 2025. The company’s Dr. Guillaume Chansin told conference attendees that sports and fitness have spurted ahead for now, but Chansin sees medical applications as “where the most interesting things are.” It’s also where the largest growth is expected.
Private equity funding for e-textiles jumped from less than $10 million in 2012 to more than $40 million in 2014, and that level of investment is projected to continue, he says. Additionally, huge investments are being made in advanced “infotainment” devices, but more basic devices in this market are relatively static.
A variety of developments over a long period of time have contributed to the current interest in wearables. One in particular is driving current developments: Bluetooth® low energy (BLE) technology. In fact, he says, “Bluetooth 4.0 is the largest individual contributor to the current interest in wearables.”
The transition to wearable technology has followed a pattern already established, which is why the focus has been on wrist-worn devices—a natural transition from the wristwatch. Health care, fitness, military, fashion and “infotainment” all use wrist-worn devices.
Applications are also diverse and becoming more so, including sensors, energy harvesting and storage, lighting, heating and identification technology. Some of the products, in addition to smart clothing, are smart beds, textile lighting, sports tracking, wound care and protective clothing.
Sensor technology is especially important and includes wearable sensors for inertial measurement units, optical heart rate monitoring, wearable electrodes, chemical detection, pressure and impact sensoring, temperature levels and microphones. Several major sportswear brands have launched sensoring fabric garments in recent years.
Maurizio Macagno, CTO and cofounder of Sensoria Inc., used the company’s trademarked slogan, “The Garment Is the Computer®” as the title for his presentation on smart garments, which he says has the greatest potential for growth in wearable technology. Smart shirts are already available and more smart garments are emerging from the testing phase.
The company’s first product, the Smart Sock, is as comfortable as a normal sock, but pressure sensors connect magnetically to an electronic anklet with an accelerometer and Bluetooth communication. The product’s target market is runners—numbering in the many millions—says Macagno, who are prone to get hurt. The product is designed to help prevent running injuries.
The company has just introduced a Running System that includes its Fitness T-shirt (or Fitness Sports Bra) and the socks. Information collected by the smart garments is sent to the wearer’s smartphone app. The goal, however, is for the company to offer manufacturers a “Powered by Sensoria” label via a developer kit that enables manufacturers to develop their own smart products and B2C branding.
Sensoria has done this with car manufacturer Renault for a line of clothing. RespondWell is another example of a partnership. It provides rehabilitation patient monitoring and feedback; patient activities at home can be reviewed and assessed by health care providers, such as monitoring the patient’s gait, balance and progress in rehabilitation exercises.
The technology is not without its challenges. Macagno lists the difficulty of powering and reading data from fabric and the connectors. Given the applications, there’s also the issue of sweat interference. Signal noise needs to be filtered and because the baseline changes, there can be degradation of the signal. He also points out that “You don’t usually talk about washing electronics,” but these garments must survive many washing and drying cycles.
In addition, the garment industry, generally, is optimized for volume and speed, with significant work being done by minimum-wage labor. “There is still a gap there in volume and scale for garments that can be smart,” he says.
Conductive, stretchable ink
Although growth rates may appear impressive, DuPont’s Dr. Michael Burrows says that larger growth has been held back because of a need for stretchable electronics. In an IFAI Advanced Textiles Conference presentation about the company’s new ink, Burrows said that the printable, stretchable electronic ink will enable “truly manufacturable smart clothing.”
“Can we simply print a circuit on textiles?” he asked. His answer was that the ink not only has the signal-carrying capacity of traditional electronics, but it’s also manufacturable in high volume.
“There is a massive wave [in wearable technology] going on right now,” he says. “Where is the smart clothing? Where did it go? The growth for this part of the market has been held back because these textile products require stretchable electronics. We believe this has been the missing element.”
Basically, the e-textile is made by first screen printing the conductive ink on to stretchable substrate that can be laminated to a textile to create a “stretchable package.” The stretchable conductor is laminated between an elastomer film and the fabric on one side and a stretchable sensor and an encapsulant overprint on the other.
The advantage of printed, stretchable circuitry is that it provides the thinnest option—and it’s rugged, washable and comfortable. In fact, Chansin listed comfort among the challenges this market faces. Bulky electronics, Chansin says, can be too uncomfortable to wear. Additionally, interconnection between components and adapting battery technology are challenges, along with encapsulation for washability and mass production capabilities.
Burrows says that DuPont has now addressed these stumbling blocks. “You have to take complexity out of the garment, not put complexity into it,” he says, so people will actually use the product.
A prototype biometric fitness shirt developed with electronic products supplier Maxim Integrated has shown that the product is thin, comfortable, stable through repeated elongation and washable up to 100 cycles. DuPont is now developing a complete material suite that will include conductors, encapsulants, sensors and breathable films.
Expectations are high for the impact of DuPont’s technology. “Clothes will always outsell phones,” Burrows says.
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source.