Weaving technology into smart textiles

From sportswear, space suits, military attire to life jackets, cutting-edge technology combined with textiles offers wearers more than just clothing

By Antoinette Price

Imagine swiping your car seat to change the radio station or heating temperature? How about a uniform which can detect chemical contamination, a tent which generates electricity or a lamp shade which reacts to light and temperature?

Integrating interactive circuitry into clothing fabric (Photo: www.extremetech.com)

An industry taking off

Electronic or e-textiles, also known as smart clothing or smart fabrics, do what normal materials can’t; they communicate, transform, conduct energy and change shape. This is all possible thanks to digital components and electronics, which are woven into fabric fibres, embedded into or painted on the fabrics. 

Smart clothing and e-textiles are changing the landscape of a number of sectors, including fashion, furnishing, healthcare and automotive. The smart textile market is expected to reach USD 4,72 billion by 2020, according to a report by research company MarketsandMarkets. Driving factors include the uptrend in wearable electronics, the increasing demand for sophisticated gadgets, the miniaturization of electronic components, and a rapid growth of low-cost smart wireless sensor networks.

Standards for a smart world

In our increasingly smart world, we are more mobile than ever and progressively more connected. Thanks to wearables and portable technology, we can monitor aspects of our health and work and access personal information while on the go.

e-textiles are taking this a step further by incorporating the hardware and the ability to power it directly into fabrics, enabling more industries to add extra value to their products. IEC International Standards and Conformity Assessment Systems will continue to play an important role in ensuring product quality, reliability, safety, performance and cybersecurity.

Several IEC Technical Committees (TCs) produce International Standards for many of the electronic components which are used in smart textiles. Sensors are a key element of the Internet of Things (IoT).  They contribute input to the analytics that will shape the future smart world. They are also part of the technology being woven and embedded in e-textiles. IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and its Subcommittees (SCs) develop International Standards for sensors. IEC SC 21A: Secondary cells and batteries containing alkaline or other non-acid electrolytes, covers the power required by this technology.

Other IEC TCs cover the components of medical devices and applications, as well as printed electronics and nanoscale technology used in medical patches and intelligent wound dressings.

Many ways to use intelligent fabrics

Some fashion designers take a purely aesthetic approach to clothes, illuminating them with embedded LEDs and using materials which react to the environment and change colour. However, e-textiles can gather and connect to the IoT to transmit useful information from wearers about their health, environment and location. This can enhance performance in sports, improve safety for emergency first responders, people working in potentially dangerous areas, such as gas and oil production, and military personnel. As research develops, smart fabrics are also being used in sectors, such as medical, building materials, automotive and more.

A sense of health...

In addition to the numerous bracelets and watches which monitor our bodies, intelligent clothing and fabrics are also making their mark. Some examples include:

  • A patch for examining sweat composition
  • Haptic gloves that stimulate the hands of stroke victims
  • Stockings with integrated sensors which monitor the foot pressure load of diabetic sufferers and transmit the readings to smartphones/tablets via wireless electronic units
  • A malleable hydrogel bandage with embedded sensors that can be applied to injury sites. Electronic parts are implanted into a block of the material, including semiconductor chips, LED lights, conductive wires, and body-measuring sensors. The high-tech bandage contains temperature sensors and drug reservoirs that can hold and dispense medication based on data from the sensors. It can work wirelessly and with a smartphone to provide additional information to the wearer or medical staff
  • A biliblanket portable phototherapy device that treats babies with jaundice. Placed close to the skin a special light-permeable fabric gives off a blue/white light of varying intensity
  • Helmets connected to the IoT, which warn of impacts to the head
  • A conductive rug can distinguish between a standing and fallen over person by measuring changes to the electric field through capacitive proximity sensors. Radio modules embedded in the fabric track the speed and direction of movements and convey this data to a separate control unit, which analyzes it in real time.

...and safety

Firefighter turnout gear or protective clothing, which is made of smart textiles, has thermal-sensing technology integrated directly into the inner and outer fabric layers. This technology monitors heat levels of the external environment and the wearer’s skin. The sensors are connected to an LED display on the sleeve and the back of the coat. The display has two parts which flash red when critical temperatures are reached either externally or at skin level. Team members can see the light on the back, while the wearer sees the one on the sleeve and the vest has GPS location technology.

e-textiles save soldiers and lighten their loads

Armed forces carry more electronic equipment than ever. Some soldiers bear the weight of up to 50 kg of heavy kit (GPS, radio, night vision kit and more) which needs powering. As well as being very costly, batteries add to the weight, while cables can get caught or tangled and be dangerous as soldiers move around. Weaving or embedding electronics into fabrics instead is providing innovative ways to addresses these issues. 

One company has woven a Qwerty keyboard into a single piece of jacket fabric. Another unique vest contains an invisible network built into the clothing, using conductive fibres instead of cables. This jacket, but also similarly designed belts, contains a power delivery and data management systems and electronic devices can be plugged directly into it. Eight connection ports across the garment provide 200 watts of power and communication happens over USB. This vest can be recharged on the move. An inductive charging plate draws power from wireless charging plates built into the seats of vehicles.

Wearing a second skin in space

Swapping the bulky pressurized, temperature-sensitive space suit for something that hugs the body contours like streamlined sportswear, a new generation stretchy suit is being developed by MIT, using smart fabrics. The idea is to line the garment with tiny nickel-titanium alloy coils, which have shape memory. If bent or deformed the suit becomes loose to easily put on and take off.  When plugged into the electricity supply and heated, the coils will remember the shape and contract to the wearer’s body. This saves space and allows astronauts greater flexibility and mobility.

Intelligent-Textiles-Qwerty A keyboard is woven into smart fabric (Photo: www.themanufacturer.com)
smartfabrics_google_jacquard_1 Integrating interactive circuitry into clothing fabric (Photo: www.extremetech.com)
smartfabrics_conductive_yarn Conductive yarn sewn into clothing acts as a detector (Photo: smartlife)