Addressing the challenges of scaling up for e-textiles and other novel materials.
by Janet Preus
“We still have the post-development valley of death,” says Clare King, president of Propel LLC. Her company has been involved in developing new smart products for about a decade. “It’s the gap in the transition [from prototype] to scaling up, into making thousands,” she says.
But today’s problem solvers in the advanced textiles industry are zeroing in on precisely what’s holding up the commercialization of new technologies – especially e-textiles – and bringing that conversation in front of the industry. Several sessions at IFAI Expo’s Advanced Textiles Conference either dealt specifically with, or referenced, that infamous “valley” facing small startups in particular, who have had prototype success and are ready to move to pilot projects and beyond – if they just could. But getting a brilliant idea from successful prototype to a viable commercial venture means crossing the “valley of death.
The proper equipment
The hold-up is in the large-scale manufacturing, which requires the proper equipment and costs a lot of money, even as much as a $1 million. “It’s a long pipeline and a huge investment,” says Stephanie Rodgers, Apex Mills. “Maybe a startup has $10,000 to try something out.”
But it’s not just the money, per se. It’s having the equipment that will do the job and having a producing partner willing to dedicate expensive equipment and a considerable amount of time to creating an equipment solution This requires taking equipment out of far more profitable production. Even with a producing partner’s participation, both the startup and the producer are facing what could be a very long process to somehow fine-tune the machinery and its digital processes to accommodate an entirely new material.
But it can be done. And that’s where organizations such as AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) and others are in a position to help. In his presentation, CEO Sasha Stolyarov pointed out AFFOA successes in helping startups pursue manufacturing in the U.S. and getting those products to market. What most startups need as a next step is pilot-scale machinery, as opposed to the lab scale that produced a prototype, or on the other end of the spectrum, full commercial production equipment.
A new “box”
One of the presenters pointing to a need for equipment to accommodate e-textiles, was Nextiles founder and CEO, George Sun. “There’s a need to make machines less obtuse and easier to use,” he says, so they are more accessible to e-textiles applications. In order to make this kind of progress in more accessible, acceptable and comfortable devices, “There has to be some innovation in the sewing process and in the knitting process,” he says.
His “problem-first” approach is much broader than the equipment used to make a product, however. In fact, “If we step away from silicon,” he says, “I truly believe that textiles can serve as a Moore’s-like law in terms of innovation.” The future, he says, is “the law of comfort.”
Sun makes a clear distinction between solution driven as opposed to problem driven. Problem-driven is a superior approach, he says, because it provides a new way of accomplishing something. He points to silicon-based transistors, which have launched a number of wearable devices “that basically look the same,” he says. “They’re all hard pieces that are put into a flexible model that can be worn.” But what they really are, he says, is a way to use an app.
His company is working on a more integrated approach that includes a software development kit (SDK) so all the device capabilities “talk to each other.” At the moment, Nextiles is focusing on the sports market, because “it’s hungry for more data,” but Sun sees more markets and applications that could benefit from the Nextiles problem-solving approach.
- Sensing capabilities in vehicles, including in self-driving cars
- Biomechanical measurements, analysis and diagnostics in healthcare, especially to make these devices more portable, comfortable and less conspicuous.
- Health monitoring for military use, including load management and fatigue analysis for soldiers; detection of environmental hazards and providing warnings; and squad communication and remote deployment uses.
- In geriatrics to track rehabilitation progress; for remote monitoring; fall detection and injury prevention; and temperature sensing
In the end, he sees his company as something like Intel in a computer. “You wouldn’t buy a Nextiles shirt,” he says. “You’d buy a Nike shirt, for example, that has Nextiles technology in it.”
Throwing away the box
But others are not just thinking “out of the box;” they are throwing away “the box,” starting with novel approaches to overcoming problems posed by new technologies, because finding a solution in existing machinery is still using an existing solution.
In his presentation, Jifei Ou, CEO and founder of OPT Industries, noted that most textile processes involve several steps, from making the fiber to transporting the finished product. His company has reduced the steps to one by using a liquid polymer, designing the machinery, and creating the software to make multiple products for various applications.
The company designs materials and products with micron-scale precision on its 3D printing system. It offers polymer development, product prototype and commercial-scale production services, and is currently working in automotive, interior, cosmetics, medical, apparel and footwear industries.
Every market, Ou points out, requires unique textiles and functions, but traditional manufacturing faces challenges at every turn, from the fiber and yarn spinning to assembly and transportation. OPT’s has a single process: a liquid polymer made into a flexible, structured material, which can be customized for the functionality needed.
As an example, when cotton swabs were in short supply early in the pandemic, a local hospital in Massachusetts contacted the company to see if they could fill the gap. The company designed a superior swab in two days, he says, scaled it to production in 60 days and sold 800,000 units.
The same process, essentially, could provide custom designed biopsy brushes, medical applicators, synthetic down, package insulation, acoustic materials, cushion materials and many other products for a myriad of markets. The company’s machinery has a limited print width at present but will offer larger widths with new equipment soon. The length of the finished material is, however, unlimited.