The first Smart Fabrics Summit was co-sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and held in Washington, D.C. in April 2016 and brought together participants that typically do not talk to each other. That’s not because they don’t like each other; it was simply because they do different things and didn’t know each other. That was about to change.
There was discussion about collaboration at the Smart Fabrics Summit this year, too, but the nature of the conversation had definitely changed. The level of insight participants have about the need to collaborate across disciplines and areas of expertise is clearly higher, in my opinion. I am basing this on personal observation, but I’ll stick by it.
For example, six years ago at that first Summit, I heard fashion designers, anxious to delve into the realm of e-textiles, voice the need to find engineers in electronics, materials science and textile production. But as “fashion” designers, they were having trouble connecting with the expertise they needed. But they needed to be taken seriously, too. Who better to address the issues of wearability, launderability and consumer acceptance? The electrical engineers need the expertise of textile manufacturers, and the textile folks need the electrical folks, who need the designers. And everybody needs to grasp a few basics, at least, in patents, IP, supply chains, branding and marketing.
Nobody launches a new idea alone, and although we have, undoubtedly, always known this on some level, our understanding is richer and deeper now, based on knowledge we didn’t have six years ago. We have forged new relationships with organizations such as IEEE and IPC that have supported a more cohesive effort in the long and arduous process of creating products and establishing standards for this new textile technology we call “smart.”
Relationships across disciplines have also propelled smart fabric development beyond researching and prototyping, in many cases, and into the critical areas of scaling up manufacturing for full commercialization. This will take new partnerships with investors willing to back up this next step and wait for a longer-term payoff. The good news is that there are organizations—private and public—that have established memberships and databases meant to connect entrepreneurs with the resources they need—including money—to get these exciting new smart products into the marketplace.
But this is hardly a linear process. The path to development of anything new in textiles seems to be a constantly morphing landscape – from new materials research right through to consumer preferences. New solutions are anything but static, and it is this potential for diverse approaches to problem solving that is the beauty of today’s smart fabrics industry picture – as long as we nurture those connections and value expertise that we didn’t know we needed to know. It’s also what makes it endlessly interesting and newsworthy, and news is what I do.