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Apex Expo highlights e-textiles as IPC group works on standards

March 4, 2018

San Diego, CA. E-textiles represented a key topic of interest at Apex Expo, with Tara Dunn of Omni PCB moderating a Wednesday panel session titled “How E-textiles are Stretching the Boundaries of Electronics to Meet the Challenges of Today and Tomorrow.”

An Apex Expo program note described e-textiles as the Wild West of electronics, with markets and materials emerging while questions regarding manufacturing, test, and reliability remain to be answered. In advance of the panel discussion, I had the general idea that designing an e-textile would be much like designing a PCB—you just substitute cotton or polyester for FR4. But it’s not that simple. For example, what happens when you stretch a conductive material? How do you integrate sensors into fabric? What standards are in place or under development? How many times can you put an e-textile through the washing machine? How do you recycle it?

While panel moderator Dunn comes from the electronics industry, the other panelists represented the textile industry. They included Connie Huffa of Fabdesigns Inc., which describes itself as a “secure and confidential engineering laboratory for extreme textile projects.” Also participating were Stephanie Rodgers of Apex Mills, which specializes in custom application-driven design, and Diana Wyman of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.

E-textiles, they said, can take many forms—fiber, polymer, blends, and even stainless steel. They can be woven or nonwoven, or even knitted. The challenge is interlacing “electronic yarn” with a traditional textile. And the e-textile category embraces more than wearables—rugs with embedded piezoelectric elements for energy harvesting, for example, as well as commercial building infrastructure.

They cited several market opportunities, including military, aerospace, commercial, medical, and health-and-fitness applications. One example is a compression garment that can give an autistic child a “hug” when needed.

One initiative of IPC that the panelists are participating in is the development of standards for e-textiles. A subcommittee working on standards development and headed by Chris Jorgensen, IPC director, technology transfer, met for a full day meeting on Thursday. Upcoming initiatives include IPC E-Textiles 2018 on September 13 in Des Plaines, IL. It will be preceded by a standards meeting on September 12. For more information visit www.ipc.org/E-Textiles-2018. See also a related blog post by Jorgensen.

Finally, it’s worth noting that SEMI in cooperation with its strategic partners addresses flexible hybrid electronics, and SEMI maintains an information hub on the topic here. There was some discussion at the e-textile panel on the role of IPC, the electronics industry, the semiconductor industry, and the textile industry in developing products and relevant standards. One point I inferred from the discussion among panelists and audience members is that—at least for wearables if not carpets and brain-embedded sensors—the semiconductor and electronics industry is beginning from the standpoint of traditional electronics and trying to make it flexible and wearable. The textile industry begins from the standpoint of traditional fabrics and tries to make them intelligent.

You can read more about SEMI’s recent 2018FLEX and MEMS & Sensors Technical Congress events here. Future events, including IPC E-Textiles 2018 and SEMI’s 2019FLEX (which will take place February 18-21 in Monterey), will shed more light on the subject.

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