Why screen printers should care about the development of apparel infused with electronic sensors and circuitry.
According to the IDTechEx blog, Rest Devices had developed a system that combined capacitive sensing, Bluetooth transmission of real-time biological data, and a clever way to integrate chip and power. What the company lacked was a conductive ink that would meet the requirements for softness, stretchability, and durability, which they found in Engineered Materials Systems’ CI-1036 silver conductive ink. The ink is applied to proprietary film and insulated with a proprietary topcoat. According to Rest Devices, this configuration withstood 90 wash/dry cycles.
Leonard Allison of Engineered Materials Systems reports that the company has developed a complementary suite of soft, durable, and stretchable inks including: silver chloride for bio-sensing; carbon inks for resistance adjustment, printed resistors, or sensors; and compatible dielectric insulators to protect the layers or build multilayer circuitry.
“Much of Engineered Materials Systems’ development effort is focused on superior stretch and durability, as well as identifying substrate options
or ink transfer methods that will offer robust solutions for the many and varied potential applications,” he says.
Sensor Films: At the Printed Electronics Symposium at the SGIA Expo 2015, Sensor Films unveiled an industrial inkjet printing system for high-throughput digital deposition of decorative and functional materials on flexible, porous, and rigid substrates including plastics, cardboard, textiles, ceramics, and glass. Promoted as a production platform for printable electronics, the Starlight Digital Manufacturing Platform has been engineered to produce everything from high-value electronic components to four-color decorative graphics. Developed in conjunction with Xerox Engineering Services, the Starlight Digital Manufacturing Platform is a sheet-fed inkjet deposition system that uses a proprietary solid-ink technology to pattern materials such as four-color UV-curable ink sets to create resists, conductors, and dielectrics and stretchable inks for thermo-moldable forms. Also offered in a roll-to-roll configuration, the system can reportedly print 60-micron fine lines, textures up to 200 microns, and image resolution up to 600 x 2400 dpi at speeds up to 100 feet/minute.
“Our focus to date has been on flexible plastic substrates,” says Brian Johnston of Sensor Films. “We have just begun to explore the demands of electronics on textiles for wearable applications and believe we have something to offer in the creation of prototypes and production processes. We would be interested in working with others to address the challenges in this space.”
Visions for the Future
Many wearables today are designed around garments or detachable elements that aren’t meant to go in a washing machine. Many are designed to connect with a smartphone app.
But things may look much different five years from now as the inks, materials, and printing techniques for flexible electronics continue to advance. For example, when thin-film sensors and electronics are built into other printed materials (such as wallcoverings and windows), you might not need to carry a smartphone to read the data being transmitted by the electronics woven, sewn, or laminated into your garments. Displays could be built into walls and other devices.
The founders of CuteCircuit envision a future in which “all of the boxes that we carry with us today, such as mobile phones, cameras, and watches, will disappear. All the interfaces will become invisible, embedded into our clothing.” Such integration would enable us to communicate with each other in an unobtrusive fashion.
“Our vision is for wearables to not feel extraneous,” agrees Sensoria CEO and co-founder Davide Vigano. He says no one needs to know you’re wearing an IoT device. “Our smart socks are an early manifestation of that goal. They are machine washable, transparent mini-computers collecting data that has never been easily available before.”
In recent years, some apparel retailers have focused on selling low-cost, cheaply made “fast fashion.” These garments rely more on the availability of cheap labor than the infusion of incredible technology. Rosella and Genz want to change that type of thinking: “Our tailors manufacture wonderful garments, enhanced by digital technologies, that are made to last.”
“We believe that in five years, everyone will own smart clothing,” says Burrows. “We are currently working with over 100 companies on developing our stretchable ink technology and envision that we’ll see smart clothing using our technology available for the 2016 holiday shopping season.” Like many of the vendors pursuing this market, Burrows hopes screen printers see smart clothing as an opportunity to expand their reach with their current production equipment.
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