Imagine communicating directly with your clothes for temperature regulation and your outfit responds by cooling or heating itself automatically. Or when running a marathon, your jersey can send real-time fitness information directly to your coach or doctor. This may be possible with the development of Smart Fabrics.
What are smart fabrics?
Smart textiles also called electronic textiles, e-textiles, smart garments, and fabrics, have a digital component embedded in them. It can be a battery, a led, an electronic chip, or a sensor. The technology is incorporated into the fabric through various methods, such as conductive fibres or multilayer 3D printing.
These are manufactured and designed to integrate technologies that offer the user greater functionality. The purpose of smart fabrics is to provide added value to the user, whether for pleasure, performance, or safety. These range from applications to health, safety, security, and lifestyle monitoring.
Smart fabrics can be grouped into two broad categories: aesthetics and performance enhancement.
- Aesthetic smart textiles are those that use technology for fashion and design purposes. Having the possibility of adding a multisensorial experience, through lighting, sounds, etc. Examples include sneakers that light up and fabrics that change colour with body heat.
- The fabrics focused on improving performance help human functions, controlling aspects such as body temperature, perspiration, heart rate, breathing, etc. Examples include clothing that can regulate body temperature and textiles that protect against environmental hazards such as radiation.
Until now, most smart fabrics have been limited to specific uses, including the medical, military, and fashion sectors.
This trend is indirectly driven by the development of smaller, cheaper-to-produce electronic devices. With the advent of conductive yarns that can be woven into fabrics, new possibilities have opened. Smart textiles are also expected to create a revolution in the smart wearable market. The size of the global smart fabrics market was valued at $ 878.9 million in 2018 and is forecast to expand at a CAGR of 30.4% from 2019 to 2025.
Smart Fabrics: The fashion world linked to technology.
The fashion and entertainment industry is using smart fabrics to incorporate unique aesthetics into their creations. Appearance characteristics such as the colour, size, or shape of the garments can be modified using Smart Fabrics. Smart fabrics in clothing allow the user to interact with their environment and communicate data through integrated sensors or lead wires to “communicate” with wearable devices through clothing.
One example is CuteCircuit which uses smart fabrics for its haute couture collections and special projects. CuteCircuit’s ‘Sound Shirt’ allows deaf people to experience music through their bodies through the smart garment.
Social Media and Communication
E-textiles are opening new doors for social media, creating new ways for people to interact with each other and share information.
Jansport developed a backpack made of a programmable smart fabric connected to social media. Users can share songs, videos, Facebook pages, and website links. It is a way of showing the world what we want about ourselves efficiently and openly.
Google and Levi’s
For the past years, Google has been working with Levi Strauss on a future smart denim jacket. The goal was to produce a smart jacket that uses Google’s Project Jacquard smart technology. This is a smart fabric sleeved denim jacket with built-in touch controls. In November 2019, the technology saw the light, commercialized in the new Levi’s jackets.
The jacket uses Bluetooth and conductive wire to communicate with a partner smartphone app. Users can change their music selections and execute other commands with programmable touches of the web.
Smart Textiles for healthcare
Other tech giants like Microsoft and Apple are applying for their patents for their smart fabric technology integration. Apple filed a patent to integrate health monitoring technology into clothing. Similarly, in November 2019, Microsoft filed a patent for smart knitting technology called Electronically Functional Yarn that will be embedded in yarns for electrical functionality.
The French startup Spinali Design manufactures high-end beachwear with integrated ultraviolet light sensors that indicate when to apply sunscreen.
Smart textiles can be programmed to monitor things like biometrics (measurements of physical attributes or behaviours like heart rate), which could help athletes, dieters, and physicians observing patients’ vital signs. The application possibilities in the healthcare sector are endless.
Smart textiles could be incalculably beneficial in many areas, and that is without even delving into many sectors, just looking at their applications in the world of design and fashion.
Communication is the backbone of the modern technological revolution, and the integration of communication technology into clothing can open new opportunities for interaction and expression. Facing COVID-19, it could be a favourable scenario for the development of these technologies focused on health and the enhancement of non-contact tasks. We hope soon to see this technology in different sectors and take advantage of its potential.
Finally, to say that there are industrial sectors with great tradition in our country, such as textiles, which could have the opportunity to resurface if it manages to add this technological component and generate value for the end-user. As in everything, the secret is to anticipate, guess business models, and implement them, smart fabrics are undoubtedly a great opportunity for this.