Historical branding of textiles has led the general population to think that textiles are anything but advanced. As anyone in the textile industry can appreciate, textiles are not simple or basic, but are platforms that facilitate a human’s ability to blur the line between creativity and engineering to elicit remarkable advanced functional capabilities from textile constructions for improving product capability. These advanced functional textiles are available today to deliver medicine, provide climate-controlling properties, and improve weight to strength efficiency, as much as they can resolve sustainability issues that notably challenge the textile industry.
A cornerstone of advanced functional textiles is electronic textiles (or e-textiles) that embed electronic function into a textile construction. This represents the merging between two equally expansive industries into something powerful enough to spur new creativity, innovation and product markets. But haven’t we read about this in the past and yet, where are all these e-textiles that are improving our life?
Ever since Marty so stylishly sported a blow drier jacket in Back to the Future Part II, we have wanted clothing to predict our comfort and adapt. We want the invisibility cloak to be inexpensive and delivered to our doorstep, preferably tomorrow. We want to be amazed by its simplicity and its accessibility.
Frankly, the idea of the original e-textile concept of a wearable computer was ambitious and perhaps misaligned with the technology reality available when it was first conceived. The early pursuits looked at the electronics revolution and industry innovators said, “We want in.” We thought the fundamental elements of e-textiles were going to be simple and basic.
In reality, technology revolutions in communication and advancement electronics, guided by the (perhaps out of date) Moore’s Law, were a necessary step that needed investment … trillions of dollars of investment, globally aligned and built to roadmaps for industry to follow, technology innovators to leverage and consumers to desire. Data management and algorithms to effectively use data are upon us just now.
Of all marketplaces, the sports and fitness, and the thermal heating industries have observed the greatest market pull due to consumer demand. Technologically, there is a simplicity in these marketplaces for delivering a product for an individual or small-group scale. The product cost (high), volume (low), customer care (limited), and data management (personalized) work in favor of e-textiles for sports & fitness and thermal heating.
The reasons that e-textiles work in these markets are the same challenges that are faced by inserting these products in higher value markets like defense, medical, and home textiles. Broad user adoption to new markets hinges on reducing cost, improving comfort, and adaption to the daily life of users (i.e., soft, washable and imperceptible). If we are smart in how we proceed, the e-textile evolution could become comparable to the evolution from the initial computer in 1942 to the current day cellphone.
Key infrastructure elements are necessary to effectively evolve advanced functional textiles and e-textiles alike including roadmaps that prioritize investment. Roadmap milestones should inspire academic and entrepreneurial innovation and provide confidence in industrial investment for technology translation. Most importantly, the industry needs a facilitator.
Facilitating the ecosystem
In 2016, the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) was instituted as a U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Institute (MII) to be the facilitator for the U.S. domestic smart textiles ecosystem. AFFOA is one of 16 MIIs that have been federally funded in industry spaces ranging from advanced robotics for manufacturing (ARM) to flexible hybrid electronics (NextFlex) to materials recycling (REMADE). AFFOA is one of nine MIIs that are managed by the Dept. of Defense (DoD), noting the strategic need for resiliency in the domestic textile supply chain, as well as equipping the U.S. warfighter with the best-of-the-best equipment to protect and defend.
Since 2016, AFFOA, along with its domestic ecosystem, has advanced the technology for manufacturing of key textile components and products related to furthering the capabilities of advanced functional fabrics. The heart of this effort is located at AFFOA headquarters in Cambridge Mass., with Fabric Discovery Centers at Drexel University, University of Massachusetts–Lowell, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology–Lincoln Laboratory (MIT-LL); all cost shared through considerable investment by local and state governments.
AFFOA has provided funding for both passive and active (e-textile) advanced functional textiles to the ecosystem, including educational support for maturation of the workforce needed in this industry segment. The technical direction demonstrated the art of the possible in e-textiles, including integration of microelectronics directly into a fiber. Recently, that technology is being offered as a government furnished capability with MIT LL for the SMART ePANTS program sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). This research activity seeks to advance the state-of-the-art in textile integration to provide imperceptible sensing solutions.
With this infrastructure maturing, the focus of AFFOA is broadening to support new manufacturing and e-textile component integration processes to enable the now more than 150 member organizations across the domestic smart-textile ecosystem. AFFOA’s pursuit is as genuine as a pair of Levi’s. Effort has begun to align the domestic smart textile supply chain with key military needs that overlap with strategic commercial applications: human and health performance, climate adaptive clothing, power and data management in wearables, environmental and civil infrastructure monitoring, and materials and process sustainability.
AFFOA has begun to establish processes to assist the DoD in interagency technology roadmaps that are hyper focused on a mission-driven purposes. Technical working groups (TWGs) have been established led by industry, academia and defense agencies, with an initial e-textile focus on functional fibers and fabrics, industry infrastructure, soft systems integration, and flexible power and data. New TWGs in textile material sustainability, automated manufacturing, composites and educational workforce development are being planned. These TWGs will influence AFFOA and, in return, U.S. federal government in spending priorities.
Enabling the future
To enable the ecosystem, AFFOA has started to develop key industrial elements to support rapid prototyping that merges with best practices in design for manufacturing and assembly. This includes working with other MIIs in defining the scope for a digital manufacturing platform that integrates simulation tools used in textile fabric and garment design with that of electronic simulations. A digital engineering approach ultimately enables reduced development costs, lower manufacturing costs (through automation) and sustained legacy support of products.
AFFOA is also supporting advancing technologies through system platforms that allow for companies to test their materials by getting them in the hands of users (i.e., warfighters) as fast as possible, starting with markets for climate adaptive textiles and power/data busing within textiles.
Advanced functional textiles exist today and are rapidly evolving to provide more value add for a breadth of military and commercial markets. To merge advanced functional textiles into larger markets, we, as a domestic textile industry, need to be purposefully aligned across the supply chain in resource allocation to materials and manufacturing development. The textile industry is a technology industry, and the world is starting to realize its potential. The future isn’t “virtual worlds,” it is real, and it’s going to impact us in tangible ways.
Dr. Jesse Jur is Director of Ecosystem Technology, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Inc., and and Professor of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science at North Carolina State University.