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Transportation textiles on the move

February 8th, 2021 / By: / Feature

ESI Automotive offers a vision of the future: electronic proliferation in a car’s interior using a combination of display and touch films with in-mould electronics. Photo: ESI Automotive.

Major changes in vehicles will offer opportunities to innovators in this market. 

by Marie O’Mahony

Recent reports illuminate key factors influencing tomorrow’s automotive textiles segment. Most notably, the automotive lightweight material market is expected to reach $247 billion by 2026, according to Global Market Insights. “In 2010 almost 40 percent of an average car’s weight was due to convenience, comfort and entertainment,” a recent article in Automotive Interiors World reports. When you put these two together, you get consumers who still want “convenience, comfort and entertainment,” but the excess weight has to go. Therein lies the challenge. 

But this is good news for the textile industry, which is well placed to deliver on this demand. Manufacturers see opportunity for innovation and expanding value-added product offerings in existing lines, which translates to market growth. The outcome is a move to combine functionalities such as sensing, solar and digital media, integrating them with materials—including textiles—that carry their own performance and aesthetic characteristics.

Sustainability and performance

Electric vehicles (EVs) are coming, as once-impossible issues are being addressed. Range has been the number one consumer concern relating to EVs, and has undoubtedly held this market back, but that’s about to change with a self-charging solar car from Sono Motors. The designers have approached the issue of solar charging for the “Sion” in a novel way, treating it as a ‘paint’ to be applied to the vehicle. Over 248 solar cells are integrated in this way so that, in addition to the full cover this provides, aesthetically it does not stand out as “other.” 

The technology is embedded in a polymer rather than glass, which achieves a weight saving of 50 percent, making it comparable to conventional cars. The vehicle is available for pre-order, with production scheduled to begin in 2022 for delivery in Europe only.

COVID-19 has added to the emphasis on efforts to address environmental impact and climate change, and the delivery of goods has increased dramatically as consumers turned to on-line purchasing. The EU-funded MAterials for Smart TRanspOrt (MASTRO) project is directed at developing intelligent bulk materials for the transport sector that are based on novel concepts, such as self-sensing, self-de-icing, self-curing, self-healing and self-protection methodologies. 

These address issues of sustainability and safety with the expectation of enhancing market opportunities for the materials industry up to 15 percent. Key to achieving this is the development of conductive nanomaterials, such as multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) and graphite-based nanomaterials for use in smart, lightweight polymer composites, as well as asphalt and concrete formulations. 

Textile automobile door undergoing testing in the acoustic testing room at DITF. Photo: DITF.

In Germany, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economics, Employment and Housing have launched an SME [small- and medium-sized enterprises] Mobility Initiative. TexEx-Identification, “Evaluation and Demonstration of Meaningful Applications of Textiles in Vehicle Interiors” is one project under the program where the textile and fiber research center DITF is developing and testing a number of textiles directed at reducing mass and increasing the integration of functionalization using sensors and actuators. 

The opportunities they see are both reducing environmental impact and achieving economic efficiencies, particularly for micro- electric vehicles of the micro-mobility class that are used for the first and last mile of parcel delivery.

Achieving and managing complexity is a challenge with the increasing volume of data and often competing entertainment systems in the automobile interior. Reducing the number of materials, their weight and bulk is one aspect that Averatek is looking to address with their Liquid Ink technology. The California-based company develops advanced manufacturing processes for a variety of electronic products.  

Using nanotechnology, it is possible to create an additive electronic printed circuit board that can be printed onto almost any surface apart from Teflon, according to Tara Dunn, vice president of marketing and business development at the company. The technology offers a saving on weight, space, and it is usable on shaped surfaces or where stretch is needed. 

BMW’s future interactive car interior (2020) with BYBORRE textiles contributing to these wishes of the future auto-driven passenger. The i Interaction EASE cabin uses smart surfaces that transform into three modes of experience: exploration, entertainment and ease. Photo: BYBORRE.

Touch-based surfaces

Dr Heather Nelson is director of displays and in-mould electronics at ESI Automotive, based in Waterbury, Conn. She sees a strong consumer demand for replacing mechanical switches with touch sensitive and fully integrated displays. In addition to the space and weight saving, it can also offer a more sanitized surface eliminating the need for dust-trapping bevel edging, an issue that barely registered with consumers pre-COVID. 

In terms of integration, Nelson sees much being done in bonding the electronics to the back of a flexible substrate at present, with the next stage being two-film solutions, and ultimately a single film free of “ghosting,” so that circuitry underneath cannot be seen. 

Establishing the value chain is vital to achieving this with many manufacturers exploring ways that they can expand and evolve their capability. Much of the commercialized hybrid electronic materials are polymer-based, but an increasing number of fiber and textile hybrids are set to appear in the market, as manufacturing processes are advancing rapidly. 

The move towards greater integration of two different materials, textile and electronic, raises the question of recyclability. The problem is significant with an estimated 53.6 million tons of e-waste generated in 2019. At the University of Aarhus in Denmark, assistant professor Shweta Agarwala has received a DKK 6 million award from the Villum Foundation for a research program to address this question. The goal is to create novel, electrically functional materials that are 100 percent biodegradable using a bio-inspired hydrogel substrate with adhesive and electrical conductivity. “

We are rapidly developing solutions for sustainable societies with renewable energies, smart manufacturing, green aviation” says Agarwala. “But if the supporting electronics is not degradable, then the future isn’t sustainable.”

Dr. Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.