Smart fabrics are finally weaving their way onto the market
All innovative new technologies go through a relatively similar process of maturing from brand-new theoretical concepts into tangible products with the potential for mass production. This can take more time for some technologies than others, and for smart fabrics the road has been long. However, we are now starting to see genuine opportunities for connected textile products to find their way onto the market.
Thrive’s very own Director of Innovation, Dave Sandbach, a pioneer who’s been working with smart fabrics for a number of years and has around 70 patents, has spoken frequently about the slow pace of maturity in this field. Now though, increased funding and recent technological breakthroughs are taking us to the point where there is a genuine potential for a range of useful enabled textile products to start hitting the market.
With applications in healthcare, sports and entertainment, the future is looking exciting, and while some barriers still remain, many of the key challenges that were holding smart fabric production back have been overcome. Thrive is working alongside a number of partners on innovations that can be combined to form a fascinating array of intelligent garment and textile technologies – and we’re only at the beginning of the journey to explore what’s possible.
The journey of maturity for a technological innovation typically starts off with plenty of hype. That early excitement can quickly give way to disillusionment, as it can take time to gain a realistic sense of what’s actually possible and for tangible products to begin emerging. While this process has been fairly laboured for smart fabric innovation until now, recent technological developments, along with significantly increased funding in the area over the past five years, suggest that we’ll see an explosion of enabled textile products entering the market in the near future.
Sensors with low power consumption that are being developed can be embedded unobtrusively in fabrics to deliver all kinds of beneficial user data, while both film production and healthcare can make use of bodysuits that dynamically map the wearer’s movement and gait using multiple sensors. Additionally, low-power networking technologies offer opportunities to make it easier to transfer data gathered by smart garments onto a connected device or cloud server.
A feature that most enabled textile products will likely share is conductive elements that form a network across the fabric. This will require conductive materials resilient enough to reliably maintain their connections in the face of regular stretching and washing of the garment. Fortunately, the development of manufacturing techniques in this area is progressing quickly, with conductive inks and other innovations showing promise. In our work alongside Dr. Kai Yang at the University of Southampton and organisations including the Centre for Process Innovation, we’ve seen their support helping innovations such as these to rapidly mature to the point where they are now beginning to bear fruit in terms of yielding marketable products.
An area where fabric-based technology is already in use is heated garments such as gloves, leggings, vests, socks or insoles. Heat can be created using gel packs, various chemical reactions, or power banks with different voltages. A common use case for these technologies is winter sports, with motorcycle gear also available that plugs into the vehicle’s 12-volt battery to provide warmth over a larger area. While this technology is relatively uncomplicated at present, there may be scope for more exciting developments as it progresses. For instance, imagine an item of clothing that keeps the user within a desired heat range with the aid of sensors that record core body temperature – such product applications involving already available technologies are well on their way.
Several viable new applications for connected textile technology are already showing plenty of promise, too. In healthcare for example, techniques such as electrostimulation can be used for rehabilitation, muscle recovery and pain relief, with tantalising prospects for improving mobility by delivering precisely targeted stimulation to muscles or joints at certain points in their movement profiles. Thrive is also working on projects to create solutions that induce de-stressing or calming effects through neuromodulation using vibration technology embedded within fabrics. This non-invasive, non-toxic technique can even produce pain relieving effects comparable to some of the strongest drugs on the market – without the harmful side effects. Among these applications, one of our long-term collaborators is working on a patented approach to relieving period pain by delivering vibro-stimulation around the uterus using actuators embedded in a belt.
Muscle stimulation can also contribute to developments in other fields, for instance systems that use haptic feedback to create a sensation of mass or pressure. When combined with virtual or augmented reality technologies, this simulation of physical forces will be a driver for the next generation of video games, with other beneficial applications in training, industrial and medical contexts, as well as in sports. For example, Nadi X yoga gear from Wearable X contains accelerometers that measure body position, providing vibrational feedback to help the user correct their position in various yoga postures with the assistance of the Nadi X app.
Before the innovations in the field of connected textiles can be turned into widely available products, there are a number of challenges to overcome. Chief among these is manufacturability. Any product that is worn on the human body must be both comfortable and durable, but also able to withstand regular stretching, bending and wash cycles. In addition, the requirement to charge the items is a great source of user friction that needs to be addressed; the challenge here is to integrate the energy storage technology into the fabric itself, combined with a discreet mechanism for energy harvesting. The evolution of supercapacitor technology is a promising development in this area, as it will allow energy to be stored throughout the fabric of a garment rather than requiring a cumbersome battery in a single location.
On the surface, smart fabric products essentially combine the reasonably longstanding industries of textiles and electronics, both of which have well-established production techniques. In reality however, the mass production of these items will require the development of an entirely unique manufacturing methodology that does not yet exist. This is because while everyday fabrics have a high tolerance for errors, the same cannot be said for smart fabrics, which need to be manufactured to precise specifications. There is also some discussion over whether woven threads or entirely synthetic materials will work best.
With innovations including those mentioned in this article emerging as quickly as they are, we can expect to see some very interesting developments in the near future, including the measurement of a wide range of physiological signals including heart and muscle activity, movement dynamics and hormone, glucose, lactate and sodium levels from perspiration. This data can help us to observe things like lactic acid build-up through lactate, hydration levels through sweat volume and fertility and menstruation cycles through oestrogen levels. Measuring gait from multiple points on the body can also enable the detection of conditions like Osteoarthritis, helping to prevent falls and excessive degeneration by intervening with timely hip replacements. The combination of emerging supercapacitor technology with flexible solar panels will allow energy to be harnessed and stored within comfortable garments that can help athletes improve by gathering substantial performance data.
The technology is pretty much here – what remains to be seen is how it will be put to use in actual products. For instance, for the last three years Thrive has been working on a fabric-based cancer detection system that may one day provide a non-intrusive alternative to mammograms, while wound care products of the near future may be able to measure healing progress based on embedded sensors that can detect things like infection levels, healing rate and fluid release.
One of the key appeals of smart fabric technology is that the garments can look and feel very similar to those they replace – while many wearables are perceived as bulky and lacking ergonomic refinement, the functional components of enabled textiles can be built into the items without creating significant user friction, either from an aesthetic or fashion point of view. Fabric-based products are able to conform to the shape of the human body much more willingly than the solid and inflexible plastic elements that are currently found in most wearables – this represents a huge step forward for our entire industry.
Thrive is currently working on exciting projects in this space alongside a number of producers, prototyping new developments and testing the boundaries of the available technology to investigate what’s possible. With many new opportunities forthcoming and smart fabrics maturing to the point where market-ready products are beginning to emerge, now is the perfect time to start exploring where this exciting technology can take us.