Intelligent Textiles: Presenting a Roadmap for the Future

As technology evolves, textiles are becoming more and more intelligent. From clothing to sensors to luminous fashion tech, it is a revolution that has brought the integration of electronics and textiles to the forefront. It is no secret that, connected or embedded,  digital components being used in textiles is something that has been in development for decades. That being said, electronic textiles, also known as e-textiles, is a space that, although still relatively in its infancy, has been making rapid progress when it comes to finding different ways of commercialising this great innovation.


Exploring the Electronic Textiles Ecosystem


It is a known fact that we are in contact with textiles for up to 98% of our lives. It is a reality that has driven many industry players to try and find different ways that they can offer next generation smart textile products. From fashion clothing to industrial fabrics, this is an area that is increasingly being explored by various industries who are turning to technology to advance the electronic textiles ecosystem.


As we witness the developing maturity in the e-textiles value chain,  IDTechEx has reported that companies who manufacture and sell e-textiles products have faced challenges centred around reliability, cross-compatibility, materials availability and overhead costs. IDTechEx has found these limitations to be prohibitive in many emerging markets when it comes to opportunities, but the good news is that in the last few years, we have also seen significant investment and partnerships that have lowered barriers like prices.


As the space grows, it is becoming evident that restrictions should not take away from the bigger picture — technological development is continuously improving the chances of emerging e-textiles. So far there has been continuous parallel research across the emerging technology ecosystem that includes conductive inks, stretchable electronics, wearable technology, printed electronics, flexible sensors and emerging energy storage. In turn, this advancement is enabling future business opportunities in key market sectors to take advantage of textiles with functionality, connectivity and intelligence.


When it comes to the e-textiles industry today,  it is a space that is successfully drawing in interested players actively scoping available opportunities. Lucky for them, the merger of fashion and science is bringing some great innovations to the table like:


Self-powered Flexible Electronics: Science has come up with a second skin. It is a sustainable wearable device that represents a big step forward for the wearable technology space. The e-skin is a tiny and thin heart-sensing device, that has been designed without wires, requires no charging and can withstand flexion. Responsible for the innovation, which resembles a band-aid, are scientists at Japan’s RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science. Although not as powerful as existing heart-sensing technology, the self-powered flexible electronics skin’s unique selling point is its flexibility, that compensates when it comes to movements made by the wearer.   


Energy Harvesting Textiles: We now live in a time where we no longer have to imagine the potential of energy harvesting textiles. This is because researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found a way generate electricity by simultaneously harvesting energy from both sunshine and motion. By doing so, they have been able to have the garments provide their source of energy strong enough to power devices like a smartphone. The researchers did this by using a commercial textile machine to weave together solar cells constructed from lightweight polymer fibres with fibre-based triboelectric nanogenerators.  Although, still in its academic research phase, we can look forward to near future where our garments can ‘capture’ energy that is released when one fabric comes into contact with another.

Fabric Changing Technology Through a Smartphone: Tackling the technical limitations of e-textile is ChroMorphous,  which was developed by a team of UCF scientists from the College of Optics & Photonics at the University of Central Florida.  The wow factor is that the material does not contain LEDs that emit light of various colours. Instead, the scientists have used technology that enables never-before-seen capability: user-controlled, dynamic colour and pattern change in large woven fabrics and cut-and-sewn textile products.  The other perk is that ChroMorphous allows the wearer to change the colour or pattern of the fabric through their smartphone. To make it happen, the user needs to use an app, which allows them to choose from a variety of patterns and colours. An example is that a solid purple tote bag can gradually add blue stripes just by the user pressing the “stripe” button on their smartphone or even switch it to a solid blue.

Written by Muchaneta Kapfunde


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