The future of smart textiles

The future of smart textiles

Fiona Haran


In a world where pretty much everything we do is recorded – whether it’s via social media or captured on our smart phones – personal data is becoming easier to access than ever before.

Thanks to big technology players entering the textile market, interesting new partnerships are emerging that are enabling textiles to grab a piece of the data-gathering action. And, it’s not just heart rate monitoring they’re restricted to, as has been the case before. Textiles now have the ability to capture information on numerous parts of the body, to not only provide user feedback, but to aid product development and enhance customer relationships.

But with consumers already becoming increasingly concerned about the security of their personal data, will textiles only exacerbate this worry, or help both consumers and businesses to obtain a better understanding of data use?

This was one of the main topics of discussion at the Wearable Technology Show (WTS), held at London’s ExCel Centre on 15-16 March. The largest show for connected technology, WTS featured 225 speakers, over 140 exhibitors, and more than 40 product launches.

Among the speakers was Paulo dos Santos, CEO of Kinematix, a sports electronics manufacturer hailing from Portugal. The company used to specialise in the medical device sector, an area defined by confidentiality, developing products such as tools for orthopaedic corrections. In 2015, it stopped producing medical devices altogether to focus on sports.

“Sport is obvious for us. We repackaged our knowledge, and used the skills we developed in the medical device sector to move into the consumer market,” says Santos.

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Visitors make their way into London’s ExCel centre to learn of the latest connective technology

Maintaining its focus on feet, Kinematix developed TUNE, an innovative running system comprising a pair of digital insoles and a clip-on charger to monitor running performance. “We take parameters like ground contact time, and combine it with the personal profile of the runner – your weight, age, how many times you train per week – to give a personalised training plan to allow the runner to improve their technique,” says Santos.

Discussing the information that is obtained from the device and accompanying mobile app, Santos says: “We care about relevant data. Most people don’t know what to do with the data, so we need to help them. For example, the TUNE app includes a dashboard that lists your runs and monitors the symmetry of both feet. We need to transform the data into something meaningful, to generate knowledge.”

And the security aspect? “In our previous area of healthcare, the number one rule was that you cannot use the data of patients freely. With TUNE, everything is in the Cloud, the user is the only one that has access to their data, and they can also erase it if they wish,” explains Santos.

For now, Santos says that Kinematix will continue to focus on monitoring feet, “the most important body interface with the ground”, but that in future, the evolution for the company will come from combining the data with other body parts to “capture even more relevant data about a user, and to learn more about how different body parts interconnect with each other”. He also says that the company is paying close attention to textiles. “Some companies are doing amazing things with textiles. This is only the starting point. There’s so much potential to develop and expand in this area.”

Weight reduction

Another overriding trend highlighted at WTS 2016 was weight reduction, particularly concerning e-textiles, which are still largely characterised by bulky wires and unsightly battery packs. It is this very factor that is currently preventing e-textiles from penetrating the luxury fashion market. “Apparel and textiles have to be aesthetically pleasing, we can no longer put on big clunky things that don’t feel comfortable but have functionality,” says Michael Reidbord, professor of New York Fashion Institute of Technology, during a panel discussion on The Future of Smart Textiles. “Just having things that are washable, so that it doesn’t even become a wearable, is important. You’re putting on clothing that has real functionality that applies to your life.

“What the industry needs is more opportunity for fashion designers to start working with this technology, to understand where it could be applicable. The really exciting part is getting it to market,” Reidbord adds.

Embroidery techniques

Swiss textile company Forster Rohner has established an enviable reputation in the e-textiles sector, appointed by big fashion brands, such as Chanel and Dior, to produce the next-generation of textiles. But in order to look ahead, the company seeks solutions in traditional textile manufacturing.

“Using decorative patterns in embroidery, but using the right materials, you can produce functional patterns, like heating patterns that transport energy from one part of the garment to another using intricate circuits that drive several hundred LEDS,” explains Jan Zimmermann, head of Textiles Innovations. “With embroidery, I can work with multiple versions of conductive fabrics and conductive yarns. It’s very flexible in production. We can combine function and design, all using the same machines,” he adds.

Forster Rohner supplied LED fabrics for the Climate Dress, a project by a Danish design studio which measured CO2 content in air and interpreted it in the form of a lighting pattern.

“We have a portfolio of over 130 different conductive yarns that we work with. Then we look at the interconnection technology – how do you connect the textile with the hardware? This needs to be solved in every e-textile project,” says Zimmermann. “If you manage to merge the two worlds of electronics and textiles, you can make amazing products.”

Communicative fashion

Another company that specialises in the area of technology and fashion is London-based CuteCircuit. Launched in 2004, CuteCircuit began its foray into smart textiles with the Hug shirt, a t-shirt that sends a virtual hug to another person using sensors to capture touch and warmth. Since then, it has worked with numerous celebrities, including Katy Perry, U2, and Nicole Scherzinger to develop washable fashion garments that are embedded with LEDs. It has also collaborated with leading UK department store Selfridges on a mini smart collection.

“The concept that CuteCircuit has brought to the market is clothing that communicates,” says Francesca Rosella, chief creative director and co-founder of CuteCircuit. “When we started this, it was a very new concept, and a lot of celebrities were interested. The stage dress worn by Katy Perry gave us the opportunity to design something lightweight and sexy that doesn’t contain bulky wires.”

Most recently, the company partnered with UK airline easyJet to develop a new range of uniforms for its cabin crew and ground crew, showcased at WTS. The bright orange uniform designed for its ground crew is embedded with LEDs in the arms to enable the crew to work hands free, and to help increase invisibility, and enhance security. Rosella says that the uniforms also contain sensors that monitor air quality, adding that they will be trialled very soon.

Emergency services

The workwear sector was discussed in more detail during a session on First Responders and The Military. Cath Rogan from Smart Garment People, who moderated the discussion, echoed the need to reduce “physiological burden” on personnel by, again, removing wires and cables, and also installing a central power unit (CPU) to strengthen the devices they’re carrying.

According to Maxwell Lowe, senior analyst for the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), one of the main barriers impacting innovation in the military sector is the speed of entry level. “Military procurement is painfully slow because it was set up for procurement of big bits of steel that last 50 years, and that’s not necessarily the best way of approaching smart e-textiles. And because of that, we encounter hard stops from big companies,” notes Lowe.

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The new uniform designed for easyJet staff by CuteCircuit

So how do you make an impact? “There are two different ways to enter the market. One is to aim at the very top, and spend several years developing your product in the knowledge you can then trickle down into larger markets. As a smaller company, there’s a risk you’ll go bust in the process,” says Mark Bernstein, CEO, Wearable Technologies Ltd. “While, if you start lower, you learn and build your knowhow and the reliability of your products from the bottom.”

He continues: “Another problem we have selling into these markets is the emergency services. They’re different particularly in Europe compared to the States – there’s a lot of central procurement in Europe, so getting onto tender lists to even get to the first step of selling into the emergency services market is quite difficult.

“In the States, the emergency services are much more localised. There’s something like 13,000 organisations in the States that you can aim at. So it’s not even a case of building the right products, you then need to think about how you actually enter the market to generate sales,” Bernstein adds.

A long way to go

Despite significant improvements being made in the smart textiles market, industry experts say it will take a lot of time, money and effort to make smart garments mainstream. Michael Reidbord from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology acknowledged the steps that are being made in the industry, but also spoke of the barriers hindering development. “What we really want to do is take conductive yarns, conductive fibres, and be able to embed very small batteries, small CPUs, and Bluetooth technology – it hasn’t happened. It’s incredibly expensive to produce these things, and it takes an enormous amount of R&D. We’re 18 months away from being able to put something on the shelf,” says Reidbord.

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WTS 2016 featured 40 product launches

During the smart textiles panel discussion, companies spoke of the difficulties in finding manufacturers to make their products. And for those garments that have been produced successfully – i.e. Ralph Lauren’s smart shirt, most of them are only available online and, again, come with a huge price tag.

In order to break out of the niche mould, Reidbord stresses the need for collaboration. “You really can’t go it alone. We’re partnering with one of the world’s leading uniform manufacturers. We’re embedding all kinds of technologies in the uniforms to solve a lot of problems, and to reduce long-term costs. It’s very complicated, but very necessary.”

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