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Evolving and expanding smart fabrics

May 6th, 2016 / By: / Feature

DuPont recently announced the availability of its printed, stretchable electronic ink, which is a breakthrough in the e-textiles market. Photo: DuPont.
DuPont recently announced the availability of its printed, stretchable electronic ink, which is a breakthrough in the e-textiles market. Photo: DuPont.

Today’s smart fabric products, with embedded or woven technological components, are resonating with consumers, and the market is responding.

Woven, nonwoven and knitted textiles are the foundation of the fabrics that make up our daily existence. They’re also the foundation of the relatively new market called “wearable technology” or just “wearables.”

Some of us may live in homes that incorporate “smart” technology—including heating and lighting that adjust automatically and smartphone apps that allow you to turn on your home’s security system from just about anywhere. With the ability to engineer fabrics for so many uses, textiles remain in the forefront of this burgeoning industry.

As Michael Reidbord, vice president of partnerships and business development at Kloog Inc. explains, the technological explosion taking place today involves the Internet of Things (IoT), which will be the world’s largest device market and connect every aspect of our lives.

“According to a recent Business Intelligence IoT report, 24 billion devices will be sold by 2020,” Reidbord says. “Wearable technology products are just one aspect of the IoT space, but a substantial and important part.”

Kloog Inc. is a Silicon Valley-based technology platform providing multiple industry sectors with the ability to implement smart features into devices. They build wearables and IoT solutions that provide an ecosystem of intelligent cloud, integrated hardware, software, connectivity and mobile access.

According to Reidbord, to produce wearable technology products of value, the first step must be to develop and manufacture smart or e-textiles that can function at a commercial level and pass all safety and performance testing, such as yarns with metaweaves that can interact and communicate with smartphones and other digital technology.

“Because we are talking about products that are making direct contact with the body, they cannot malfunction, blow up and burn people,” Reidbord says. “They must not break down because of sweat, humidity, wear and tear, weather and other factors. They need to be able to be spread, cut, sewn, knitted, thermowelded, tacked, surged, pressed and abused. Also, they need to be washable for an extended period of time, in excess of 50 washes. These fabrics also need to have a nice hand, retain their shape, color and body.”

According to Robin Nijor, vice president of business development at BeBop Sensors, the smartphone has played a vital role in the enhanced functionality of smart fabrics.

As Nijor explains, the smartphone with the realm of smart fabric technology has two core functions: as functional control hub and as the market driver of smaller, faster, more durable hardware components.

“Without these two aspects, you don’t have the user interface at a volume that makes smart fabrics a market worth developing and you also don’t have the ability to make the hardware that makes the fabrics truly ‘smart,’” Nijor says. “We believe the next phase of actual smart fabric technology development is really just beginning.”

Advancements aplenty

Like the technology space in general, the smart fabrics industry is fast-moving, constantly evolving and expanding rapidly.

For instance, in the past, the sensor technology was simply mounted with straps or harnesses, not always providing the most accurate information that the wearer or others monitoring the sensors sought.

“Today sensors are now contacting the body at other points such as through earbuds, on watches and, hopefully soon, seamlessly woven into garments,” Reidbord says. “The information obtained is pushed out to the cloud and utilized in multiple ways by individuals on their smartphones, or by companies, coaches and others. Additionally, the data that sensors can now analyze continues to grow and will lead to safer, more healthy environments.”

Reidbord is seeing exciting new developments on a weekly basis, many of which are coming out of the textile sector. These developments include such things as electronic circuitry being woven into textiles, tiny microprocessors embedded within yarns, textiles that can lower or raise skin temperature, textiles with energy harvesting capabilities, color-changing textiles and printed, flexible circuitry.

There are two market segments that Tom Martin, professor at the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, finds particularly promising: fitness and wellness, and personal protective equipment.

As Martin explains, within the fitness and wellness segment there’s an overlap with medical because of the characteristics measured, but without the regulatory issues of medical products.

“Customers in those segments are also willing to pay for a perceived—if not actual—advantage,” says Martin, who is also the associate director at the Virginia Tech E-textiles Lab.

In the personal protective equipment market, there’s an opportunity to provide individualized warnings to workers that is simply not possible with sitewide approaches.

For example, in Martin’s lab at Virginia Tech, they’ve explored prototypes of a hard hat that can give a construction worker a warning about carbon monoxide poisoning based on blood chemistry. “Different people are affected at different rates by the same levels of carbon monoxide in the air,” Martin says.

Similarly, his lab is working on a vest for roadside construction workers to provide them with a few seconds of warning when they are at risk of being struck by a passing car.

“In both market segments, a key benefit is the personalized approach that smart fabrics could provide, based on the capability of sensing things that people have difficulty sensing themselves,” Martin says.

And while today’s wearable smart textiles can track heart rate, pulse rate, and basic activity, other sensors can monitor sleep quality, movements indicating someone has fallen, stride monitoring for walking or running and even blood alcohol and glucose levels.

To monitor the safety of certain environments, Kloog is incorporating sensors for first responders that will not only monitor biometric readings, but also environmental sensors to detect and monitor different chemical elements and gases, heat and dangerous environments.

“We also have ways to detect where gunshots came from to assist in police work,” Reidbord says.

Consumer response

When Apple® releases its latest and great gadgets, throngs of consumers wait in long lines to be the first to purchase these technological gems. Others are hesitant, waiting for the second or third generation of the product to make their purchase. The same can be said for wearable technology, which still doesn’t have a wide consumer base embracing these unique textile products.

Reidbord sees two key reasons for consumers’ lack of response. The first is that the wrong audiences are being targeted.

“Most devices being offered today address the needs of more mature consumers with expensive watches, designer fit tracking bands and vibrating jewelry pieces,” Reidbord says. “These do not appeal to the true early adopters of technology: young people. The wearables of today are lacking in the cool factor and offer little excitement. To truly be successful and really scale, wearables need to be hip, comfortable, stylish and incorporate some social networking elements within the solution.”

Second, Reidbord believes that two different industries—fashion and electronics—have not yet found a way to communicate and collaborate.

“What’s really missing is the integration of the electronics and fashion industries and their supply chains,” Reidbord says. “This is what is holding back widespread adoption. Electrical engineers guessing what consumers want and building products without the engagement and direction from the creative elements in the textile areas will never yield the anticipated results. Only by fully integrating these two industries will we be able to create the next generation of wearables—beautiful garments that fit and look appealing, but are empowered with technology that solve problems and add services of value.”

Indeed, as Nijor stresses, another big challenge facing the smart fabric industry is making sure you’ve got a match between price and use case.

“Can you convince users to buy something potentially more expensive that is a big enough improvement over the current alternative?” Nijor asks. “The biggest competitors in the early phases of our technology curve aren’t other smart fabric manufacturers, they are the alternative incumbent approaches to solving a given problem.”

On the horizon

After working with smart fabrics for nearly 15 years, Martin is struck by the fact that both the textiles and electronics industries recognize the possibilities for smart fabrics, but also the gaps that exist between the industries at all levels—from tolerances at the physical design level to product life cycles. “It seems to me that the recent growth has been fueled by closing those gaps from both directions,” Martin says.

Reidbord sees the ever-changing field of smart fabrics bringing about improvements in health and safety, while adding comfort and efficiency to the home, thereby leading to improved standards of living.

“Our smart clothing will communicate with our connected home and to our smart and connected automobile, which will then take us to our connected office or work space,” Reidbord says. In the workforce, the connected worker will become empowered with a new set of tools that will create greater efficiencies, increase productivity and provide a safer work environment.

Martin believes that most people in the textile and garment industries are overlooking an important opportunity: smart fabrics will open up possibilities for providing customers with services instead of just products.

“The cell phone companies do not make their profits on the phones, they make money on the service that the phones provide, data and voice,” Martin says. “Similarly, smart fabrics will create opportunities for businesses to sell services based upon the capabilities of their smart fabrics products. The smart fabrics product itself might be a loss leader, but a company will be able to make up for that by charging for the service that the product enables. I could give you a smart shirt for free and then charge you for health and wellness services.”

But until then, Nijor says the market segments that look the most promising are where the big tech companies are headed—namely, the car, the home, virtual reality and augmented reality products.

“There is still growth in consumer health and wellness,” Nijor says. “However, it’s likely a bit further down the line as there is still a bit of technological maturation needed to make the prices, form factors, and use cases more compelling for full mainstream adoption.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer and editor based in Plymouth, Minn.