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August Technology Insights: When fabric becomes the smart choice

July 29, 2019
Check out some recent developments in the area of smart fabrics, which provide added value to the wearer in everything from aesthetics, to athletic performance, to protection.
Smart fabrics—also referred to as smart garments or e-textiles—enable digital components such as sensors, small computers, and batteries and lights, as well as other electronics, to be embedded within them. Aesthetic- or performance-enhancing, these fabrics provide added value to the wearer, such as changing colors, lighting up, or improving performance in athletics or in military applications. In athletics, electronic garb can control muscle vibration, reduce wind resistance, regulate body temperature, and more.

E-textiles can be employed to shield from extreme environmental conditions, such as space travel or high radiation. The health and beauty industries have entered the fray with drug-releasing textiles, as well as fabric that has moisturizing, anti-aging and fragrant properties. Electronic textiles diverge from wearable computing, as the focus is upon the seamless integration of textiles with components such as sensors, microcontrollers, and actuators. The inclusion of electronic capabilities on textile enlists the use of conducting and semiconducting materials. Organic electronics materials—sometimes designed as inks and plastics—are moving into favor in e-textiles, as they can conduct and act as semiconductors, and may be more amenable to stretching and bending movements.

Fibrous transistor survives the wash

A team led by Dr. Jung-Lim at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology recently revealed that it had developed a transistor with a fibrous structure, and which is said to retain a level of functionality after being washed. The transistor—fashioned by connecting twisted electrodes—is said to allow adjustability, and the semiconductor can handle currents more than 1,000 times greater than those handled by existing transistors. Dr. Lim’s team was able to bend the transistor and wind it around a cylindrical object more than 1,000 times, and maintained a performance level of more than 80%. After washing the transistor with detergent, the team claimed that performance level remained high. The researchers were further able to activate an LED device with the transistor inserted between the threads of clothing and measure electrocardiogram signals through signal amplification. “We expect that our study will contribute to the development of even smarter wearable products in the future, including next-generation wearable computers and smart clothing that can monitor vital signs,” Dr. Lim said.1

In fashion and entertainment

According to a June report by Market Mirror, “Smart Fabrics in Fashion and Entertainment Market,” robust market growth is predicted at a CAGR of 31.29% between 2019 and 2024, with North America as the key regional player. The report cites rapid developments in the field of nanotechnology, polymer development, and low-power-consuming wireless sensors as transformative factors in the landscape of the market. According to the report, “The convergence of the internet of things, 3D printing, and nanotechnologies are creating enormous opportunities for the fashion and entertainment industry. With the increasing number of products integrating sensors to generate and respond to data and perform a range of various functions, the market is expected to grow further.”2

Aiding sports performance, healing from injury

A team of researchers at Dartmouth College have created a smart fabric that can assist athletes and physical therapy patients by offering a lightweight, wearable, flexible, washable, and inexpensive solution that monitors joint rotation and arm angles. This innovation has the capability of improving sports performance and aid physical therapy patients through the healing and rehabilitation process. w\ While body monitoring technologies already exits, many of them require heavy instrumentation and rigid sensors.

This wearable monitor was designed with fabric made of nylon, elastic fiber, and yarns plated with a thin silver layer for conductivity. The team used off-the-shelf fabrics and tailored their designs in two sizes that were fitted with a microcontroller that can be detached to measure fabric resistance. The method uses the stretchable fabrics to detect skin deformation and pressure fabrics to measure pressure during joint motion. The system detects joint rotational angle through changes in resistance.3

1. The London Economic, “Machine-washable ‘smart’ clothes step closer to reality,” June 2019
2. Market Mirror, “Smart Fabrics in Fashion and Entertainment Market 2019,” June 2019
3. Dartmouth College, “Off-the Shelf Smart Fabric helps athletic coaching and Physical Therapy,” April 2019

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