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An energized market

September 28th, 2020 / By: / Feature

E-textile technologies have taken their place in the larger textile arena. 

by Janet Preus

In the midst of the reworking of so many segments of the textile industry due to the pandemic, one market segment has been able to stay focused on the basics of what it does: e-textiles, and now conductive fibers and yarns. This technology is no longer just an interesting experiment but has created a viable and growing range of applications. 

A flexible X-ray digital imager made at Arizona State University’s Flexible Electronics and Display Center uses alternative technology for flexible X-ray imaging. Photo: U.S. Army.

Grand View Research says, “The global e-textiles market is expected to possess high growth potential owing to technological proliferation and innovations in wearable technology and intelligent clothing by expert wearable computing designers.” The report adds that e-textiles will gain importance in healthcare, wellness, medical and fitness areas.

IDTechEx has updated its extensive reporting on e-textiles with a 2020-2026 outlook. “The big picture for e-textiles is extremely promising,” the summary of “E-textiles and Smart Clothing 2020-2030: Technologies, Markets and Players,” says. “E-textile products are being explored in many exciting niches, from body motion capture, to prevention of multi-billion dollar diseases and side effects, to improving road safety and many more. … The ideas for e-textiles have been around for decades, but with increasing commercial focus in the last 30 years. … new products are appearing throughout a variety of verticals as this technology area is increasingly explored.”

Events continue, virtually

The evidence goes beyond market reports. The proliferation of presentations at industry events, and the growth in the number of events themselves, although virtual in nature, indicate the strength of this market segment. The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) has a focus on smart fabrics in its Advanced Textiles (AT) Conference in early November, with several presentations either specifically about e-textiles or directly relevant to this market. 

IPC, a trade association serving the printed board and electronics assembly industries, will hold a virtual E-Textiles Summit in early October, and the Textiles Institute holds a virtual conference on e-textiles in early November, as well. The Wear Conference in mid-October will “explore the fusion of textiles and technology through wearables,” its website reports. It will feature content on “understanding e-textiles, power and connectivity,” and other related topics. 

This electronic circuit board, designed by the Palo Alto Research Center, is integrated with the flexible X-ray imager, which is used to find hidden threats such as explosive ordnance. NextFlex will create future electronic boards. Photo: U.S. Army.

Possibilities and hurdles

Functional fiber integration into textile substrates has been the goal, but hurdles remain. These will be discussed specifically in a panel at IFAI’s AT Conference by experts in multidisciplinary fields, representing the complexity of addressing issues surrounding the development and commercialization of e-textiles. 

Meanwhile, the exploration into novel applications grows. As an industry, technical textiles have not traditionally paid much attention to fashion and the arts, but as advanced technologies, such as e-textiles, fibers and yarns, proliferate, “wearables” of all sorts are crossing the line from high-tech, specialty end products into the consumer retail arena with shoes and shirts equipped with sensors that collect health data that’s sent to a smart phone. 

Search “sensors,” “wearables,” or “smart fabric” on www.advancedtextilessource.com and you’ll find everything from shirts to socks to car interiors using some form of this technology. 

Medical to military

Now that conductive fabrics, fibers and yarns have proven their feasibility, researchers and designers continue to add to the list of applications – many of them in the medical field. Dutch designer and researcher Jessica Smarsch partnered with collaborators Christian Dils, Fraunhofer IZM; Paula de Andrés, POL Studio; and Gaia Liesdek, Knitwear Lab, to create the Connextyle shirt, originally intended for stroke patients who have lost full use of the upper body. 

The shirt collects data and provides feedback on the quality and progression of their exercises and recovery. Using a new textile technology called TexPCBs, it’s paired with an app that also provides patients with visual feedback in creative patterns, as well as reports about how they have improved. 

The U.S. Military is equally interested in this field and doing its own research in another kind of e-textile pursuit, one which blurs the lines between textiles and other flexible materials, pared with electronics. Just this summer, the U.S. Dept. of Defense awarded $154 million to an Army-led flexible electronics project. The NextFlex Manufacturing Innovation Institute entered its second cooperative agreement with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Government program management will be the responsibility of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory in Maryland. 

“Flexible hybrid electronics is a new way to manufacture electronics that brings together digital additive manufacturing with traditional electronic components,” said Dr. Eric Forsythe, an Army physicist with the lab and the government program manager for NextFlex.

Examples include wearable devices that monitor health, as well as communication and sensor platforms that enable soldier authentication to communications and surveillance networks. They may also help monitor the structural health of roads, bridges and building, as well as supporting advances in soft robotics.

New products, improved technologies and expansion into additional markets are a sign of the times. As researchers, designers, manufacturers and users become more comfortable with these e-technologies, there is good reason to believe that the number of applications and markets will continue to grow. 

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at jlpreus@ifai.com