Some of the initial buzz has waned, but large companies are investing heavily in the technology and giving us a glimpse of what may be ahead.
In the February/March 2016 edition of Screen Printing, we took a big picture view of potential new applications and markets for “smart clothing.” At that time, clothing that incorporated functional circuitry was part of a wave of hype about all the types of wearables that could be developed for the emerging Internet of Things (IoT).
Since then, much of the hype about smart clothing has quieted down. In a webinar titled “Is It Time to Move on from Wearables?” technology analysts at IDTechEx noted that the markets for wearable devices are actually quite fragmented, ranging from medical, military, virtual reality, and fashion. It’s unrealistic to project that the markets for wearable devices in all of theses segments would advance at the same rate.
But that doesn’t mean that research on e-textiles and smart clothing has abated. According to a report entitled “E-Textiles 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets, Players” by James Hayward of IDTechEx, “We are in contact with textiles for about 90 percent of our lives, and they are starting to become intelligent.” Textiles are being integrated with electronics for clothing, bandages, bed linens, and industrial fabrics. Hayward observes that the e-textiles “market has been slow to start due to many challenges,” but large companies are investing heavily and beginning to bring products to market. He believes the “industry is poised to change very quickly as soon as the right conditions are achieved.”
Much of the research and development is focused on making smart clothing more comfortable to wear, more functional, and easier to make. And we have started seeing test launches of the types of smart garments that could someday become mainstream. For example, Ralph Lauren and Levi’s have both introduced outerwear that incorporates electronics for different types of functions. Other large players that are reportedly entering the market include Under Armour, Samsung, Vanity Fair, Adidas, L Brands, Nike, DuPont, Jabil, and Welspun.
Analysts at the market-intelligence firm Tractica agree that smart clothing has been developing a wider ecosystem with more players entering the market. Tractica analysts note that “For smart clothing to grow beyond sports and high-end fashion, one needs an Apple or GoPro type device that can make smart clothing cool and desirable. At the same time, it also must be affordable, and not just for affluent users. For example, imagine what type of smart clothing would be sold by H&M, Zara, or Gap.”
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