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E-Textiles and Smart Clothing: An Update

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.”

In this article, we will highlight specific smart-clothing and e-textile projects that companies have announced and recap some research efforts that show different options being explored. On pg. 20, Ray Greenwood, high-precision screen printing and production technology consultant, summarizes the three major levels of research and development projects he believes are underway.  

More Types of Products
Products being fashioned with different forms of e-textiles today include ski clothing, jean jackets, gloves, yoga pants, sports footwear, sports bras, underwear, socks, uniforms, infant wear, gaming shirts, and hospital pajamas. E-textile products with built-in sensors might also be useful for mattress pads, fitness mats, parachute fabrics, sleeping bags, fire protection gear, automotive upholstery, airplane seats, and more.  

Ralph Lauren crafted a heated parka for the 2018 US Winter Olympics team.

Two global companies used the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea to showcase what’s possible when garments include printed electronics. For the parade uniforms worn by the US Winter Olympics Team during the opening and closing ceremonies, Ralph Lauren designed a limited-edition parka and bomber jacket that includes an integrated heating system made from conductive inks printed in the shape of an American flag and bonded to the interior of the jackets. The printed conductive inks are flexible and stretchable, and connect to a battery pack with three heat settings. The system has water-repellant properties and can supply 11 hours of heating time at full charge. 

Prior to the Olympics, members of the Dutch short-track skating team used a Samsung custom-made suit in training that measured the skater’s precise body posture to calculate the distance between their hips and the ice. This data was sent to coach Jeroen Otter via a smartphone app, enabling him to see whether the skaters were bent deep enough as they went around the track. If their posture wasn’t optimal, the coach could press a button to send a vibration that the skaters immediately felt on their wrist so they could make adjustments. Two Dutch skaters who used the suits during training medaled in the Games: Sjinkie Knegt, who won a silver medal in the men’s 1500 meter event; and Suzanne Schulting, who won a gold medal in the women’s 1000 meter race. 

 The Samsung SmartSuit measured the Olympic short-track skaters' exact body posture to calculate the distance between their hips and the ice. This data was transmitted to their coach through a smartphone app. If a skater’s posture wasn’t optimal, the coach could press a button to send a vibration that the skater immediately felt on their wrist. (Courtesy of Samsung.)

Google is another big company that sees the potential of making garments “smarter.” Google’s Project Jacquard, part of the company’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) group, is producing conductive yarns that can be used to weave a complete smart garment. Button-like modules provide the connectivity. The first product to use Google’s Jacquard thread technology is Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket, featuring touch-sensitive panels in the sleeves that can be programmed to control electronic devices. Cyclists can use the jacket to access navigation prompts, change their music, or answer phone calls. The yarn sends wireless signals to a smartphone or tablet with a detachable, rechargeable smart tag that clips to the cuff. When the clip is removed, the jacket is washable and the fabric acts like traditional denim. The jacket can be purchased for $350.

DuPont Advanced Materials, a high-volume supplier of electronic inks and compatible substrates for printed electronics, recently introduced Intexar smart-clothing technology that uses stretchable conductive inks printed on film to transform ordinary fabrics into active, connected, intelligent garments. Intexar is embedded directly onto fabric using standard apparel manufacturing processes to create thin, form-fitting circuits. Garments powered by Intexar can reportedly withstand more than 100 washes and continue to perform through repeated stretching and demanding performance. Sportswear with Intexar technology can provide critical biometric data including heart rate, breathing rate, form awareness, and muscle tension.  

Dupont's Intexar heat unit is light, stretchable, and creates warmth when integrated into outdoor clothing and powered. (Courtesy of Dupont Advanced Materials.)

DuPont showcased various examples of Intexar smart clothing at the 4th Wearable Expo in Tokyo in January. BodyPlus displayed smart fitness tops, an outdoor team training shirt, and a smart vest for the wellness market. OMsignal displayed a high-end fitness sports bra that uses Intexar technology to capture real time electrocardiography, respiration, and physical activity. Stephane Marceau, OMsignal’s CEO, has said that he believes Intexar technology can enable multiple applications beyond athletic apparel that could enable the company to make smart clothing mainstream.

Manufacturers of outdoor apparel are using Intexar to create a comfortable warmth for the wearer. When integrated into clothing worn by outdoor enthusiasts and industrial workers, the technology can improve comfort, focus, and performance in very cold environments. “Our team worked hard to develop a heater that feels like fabric and doesn’t rely on cables, thick wires, or big batteries,” says Michael Burrows, global business manager of DuPont Advanced Materials. Formosa Taffeta Co. (FTC) is one company using Intexar as part of its Permawarm line of quick thermal-insulation fabrics, which provide clothing brands with a complete garment heating system, including the heater, connectors, and control software.

Automotive interiors are another developing application for Intexar technology. At the 4th Wearable Expo, the automotive components company INOAC showed a heating module that could be used in car interiors.  

Myant is a Toronto-based company with a very ambitious mission: to create a digital human presence through a textile ambient interface that would connect every human being to self, others, and artificial intelligence. Myant’s textiles are designed to provide a bidirectional connection between our bodies and the world around us. At CES 2018 (formerly The International Consumer Electronics Show) in January, Myant introduced its Skiin smart clothing platform. Like a second skin, this new textile computing platform can read, record, analyze, and respond to the wearer’s needs. The company’s first Skiin products – smart underwear and bras – have six sensors that allow the wearers to track daily activity, sleep, and stress levels and connect their bodies to other smart IoT devices. Skiin is designed to be comfortable, washable, and suitable for integration in everyday clothing. 

“By simply wearing Skiin Garments, your Nest thermostat will adjust to your temperature, your Philips Hue lights will change according to your mood, and your smart lock will unlock according to your unique biometric signature,” says Tony Chahine, Myant founder and CEO. “Or, a calming Spotify playlist will come on when you’re stressed.” Myant’s end-to-end smart-textile supply chain includes a state-of-the-art 3D digital fabrication and robotic knitting division, a printed electronics lab, and a traditional cut-and-sew operation.

Xenoma has developed “e-skin” smart apparel technology for gaming, sports and fitness, and healthcare. Their e-skin polyester/Spandex shirt feels like a typical compression shirt and can be washed more than 100 times. Fourteen sensors on the outer surface of the shirt can monitor the user’s motion and transmit data through the e-skin Hub, a centralized controller that connects via Bluetooth to a laptop, PC, smartphone, or tablet. The Hub also has a USB port for recharging. 

Xenoma’s Printed Circuit Fabric allows stretchable wires and sensors to be integrated into traditional textiles. The e-skin wearable circuit can endure high-strain rates caused by movements such as putting on and taking off the garment. The fabric can be used to create apparel for monitoring infants or uniforms that can monitor worker health and safety. At CES 2018, Xenoma showed smart pajamas that hospitals could use to monitor the movements of dementia patients. 

The Xenoma smart e-skin compression shirt for VR gaming can turn your body into a controller for virtual-reality games and experiences. The shirt has 14 strategically placed sensors woven into the front and back of the shirt. The shirt’s Bluetooth connectivity allows the wearer to connect to virtual-reality and mixed-reality headsets. E-skin smart apparel technology can also be configured for sports, fitness, and healthcare applications. (Courtesy of Xenoma.)
 

Sensoria has trademarked their vision “The Garment Is The Computer.” They have developed an entire line of sports bras and T-shirts that can be connected to training plans in the Sensoria Run v2.0 app, which features a cardiologist-created algorithm called Heart Sentinel that can detect certain cardiac irregularities that often precede catastrophic events. If distance runners or cyclists experience cardiac distress while training alone in a remote area, for example, the Heart Sentinel can confirm that the athlete is still conscious or send a text message urging family members to seek help.  

Sensoria also makes running shoes with textile pressure sensors infused under the plantar area of the foot. The running shoes not only track how far and how fast a runner travels, but also how well he or she runs. Sensoria’s artificial intelligence coach monitors cadence, foot landing, and impact forces to help runners reduce the risk of injuries. 

Sensing Tex, based in Barcelona, Spain, is a company that integrates electronics into textiles for use as fitness mats, seating pads, mattress pads, or flexible keyboards. 

The company’s Switch Sensor Tex converts any fabric or textile backing into a flexible, portable, washable keyboard that can be used either as a standalone device or incorporated into sports gear or automotive upholsteries. The company’s Mattress Mat for bedding applications can measure and monitor the position of a patient, evaluate patient comfort, or detect nonuniform pressures that can cause bedsores in patients who remain in beds or wheelchairs for extended periods of time. 

Ohmatex in Denmark has been finding new ways to integrate electronics into textiles for more than 10 years, providing customized solutions for every project and customer. Ohmatex products include thin conductive-textile cabling and washable connectors that provide comfortable and practical ways of introducing electronics into garments and smart wearable devices. Ohmatex currently has a contract with the European Space Agency to develop a garment for monitoring muscle activity in astronauts during their training on the International Space Station. Other projects they have been involved with include embedding heat sensors in firefighter suits made by Viking Life-Saving Equipment and developing woven fibers that can convert and store solar energy.  

Schoeller Textil AG is a Switzerland-based company that makes and licenses performance, protection, and technical textiles. The company won a major 2017 Swiss award for design excellence for its heatable e-soft-shell fabric, which can be cut to size for making clothing without affecting the embedded technology. It is primarily designed for outdoor sports and motorcycling but could also be used for fashion or wellness applications. E-soft-shell is a laminate consisting of bi-elastic tissue, machined lining, and a functional corkshell coating. The heating technology is based on metallic yarns integrated with the fabric in a diamond-shaped geometrical pattern. The material can be heated evenly at standard voltages.  

Some developers of textiles and garments are exploring the possibility of using graphene, a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. About 200 times stronger than steel, graphene is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have demonstrated how graphene inks can be inkjet printed directly onto fabrics to produce integrated electronic circuits that are comfortable to wear. 

Directa Plus produces graphene-based products used in consumer and industrial markets. Two new textile collections by Colmar and Eurojersey contain the Directa Plus Graphene Plus (G+) technology. When used in fabrics, G+ technology can disperse excess body heat in warm climates and conserve body heat in cold temperatures. The fabric dries rapidly and prevents the spread of bacteria and unpleasant odors. Colmar offers G+ technology in 31 garments, including men’s and women’s ski jackets and snow pants. Eurojersey includes G+ in its Sensitive Fabrics brand of warp-knit technical fabrics for sportswear, “athleisure,” and underwear.   

Research Projects 
Engineers at Iowa State University of Science and Technology have published a paper about new graphene printing technology that can produce electronic circuits that are low-cost, flexible, highly conductive, and water-repellant. The paper, published in Nanoscale, notes that the nanotechnology “would lend enormous value to self-cleaning, wearable/washable electronics that are resistant to stains, or ice and biofilm formation.” 

“We’re taking low-cost, inkjet-printed graphene and tuning it with a laser to make functional materials,” explains Jonathan Claussen, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, an associate of the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, and the author of the paper in Nanoscale. Claussen describes how the nanoengineers in his research group use inkjet printing to create electric circuits on flexible materials from ink made with flakes of graphene.  

The printed flakes aren’t highly conductive. To make them useful for electronics or sensors, the nonconductive binders must be removed and the flakes must be welded together. Claussen and his research group have developed a rapid-pulse laser process that treats the printed graphene flakes without damaging the surface. The laser processing technology can also convert graphene-printed circuits that hold water droplets into circuits that repel water droplets, opening up all kinds of possibilities for new electronics and sensors. The Iowa State University Research Foundation is working to patent the technology.

Researchers at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, Donghua University in Shanghai, and Nanjing Forestry University in Nanjing, China have developed nonwoven nanocomposite textiles that are electrically conductive, flexible, and breathable. Instead of inserting metal wires into finished textiles, the scientists modified classical electro-spinning. These materials could be used to produce comfortable, high-tech clothes that convert sunlight to warmth, supply wearable electronic devices, or contain sensors for fitness training. Dr. Andreas Greiner, professor and chair of Macronuclear Chemistry II at the University of Bayreuth, believes nonwoven textiles could be used in the upholstery of cars or airplanes. The scientists published their findings in the journal npj Flexible Electronics

Smart Labels Can Communicate, Too!
The fabric isn’t the only part of a garment that can connect to the IoT. For example, brands can incorporate RFID (radio-frequency identification) and NFC (near field communication) technology into their tags and labels to give each piece of clothing a unique digital identity. The NFC capabilities can help apparel buyers find lost products, order replacement garments, access garment-care instructions, or learn whether the garment was manufactured in an ethically responsible way. 

Avery Dennison has teamed up with the smart products platform Evrythng to make more than 10 billion items of clothing and accessories connected to the IoT. Avery Dennison’s Janela Smart Products enable apparel and footwear brands to have a unique, serialized label. The Evrythng platform manages the digital identity and data. 

Nike’s NBA-Connected jerseys have authentication NFC tags embedded in a woven label near the hem of the garments. Users of the NikeConnect app can tap the label with their smartphone to access premium content about their favorite teams and players.  

Bottom Line
Slowly but surely, e-textiles are moving out of R&D labs and into public forums such as expositions and commercialization conferences. 

For example, the Wear 2018 Conference (June 11-13) in New York is an event that brings together people from the textile and electronics industries to discuss the business of wearable technology, material innovations, smart clothing, and consumer experience. Session presenters will discuss how smart fabrics can be used in medical, military, occupational safety, athletics, consumer fashion, automotive, and architectural interior applications. 

Printed Electronics USA (November 14-15) in Santa Clara, California runs concurrently with other IDTechEX conferences that can help you understand what’s happening in e-textiles, wearable sensors, graphene, the IoT, energy harvesting and storage, and 3D printing. Exhibitors at the 2017 show not only included textile manufacturers, but also makers of inks, equipment, and coatings for producing printed electronics. 

Many observers agree that a lot of the R&D surrounding smart clothing is less about gimmicks and more about practical functions that improve the quality of life or save time, money, or lives.

According to a 2018-2022 forecast published by Technavio, the global e-textile market is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 25 percent. In 2017, the global e-textile market was dominated by the military and defense segment, which is exploring ways to reduce the weight of batteries and other equipment carried by solders. Revenues from the military segment accounted for over 26 percent of the overall market. 

ABI Research forecasts that the smart clothing market will top 31 million device shipments annually by 2022, up from just under 5 million in 2017. Their analysts note that “While smart clothing has yet to reach mass market appeal, the industry is continuing to grow within the sports, fitness, and wellness markets.”

“Vendors need to ensure that their products have rock-solid use cases and their device’s features target specific verticals and applications,” says Ryan Harbison, research analyst at ABI. “For instance, the Google and Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket is one of the most exciting new products within this market, but it is targeted at a very specific niche market – the urban bike commuter. Vendors should focus on continuing to create targeted, consumer-centric applications while also developing enterprise applications to give this market wider appeal.”

Read more from the April/May 2018 issue.

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