Smart fabrics were described at the recent Annual Smart Fabrics Conference in the UK, as "fibre-based structures that can react to stimuli," and by integrating electronics with textiles it is possible to provide new concepts for lighting, heating, cooling, energy harvesting, communicating, sensing, measuring and monitoring.
The first electro-conductive smart fabric was commercialized in 1998, but with the exception of some sports performance and medical monitoring systems, most consumers have not experienced the benefits promised by the first generation of smart fabrics due to obstacles to widespread use.
Experts say that inventors of smart fabrics struggle to find manufacturing partners, component suppliers, target markets and distribution systems, and the health and safety requirements for smart fabrics are often undefined or vary amongst the regulatory agencies, plus the protection of intellectual property is expensive and time-consuming. According to Dr. Lieva Van Langenhove of Ghent University, over €500 million has been spent researching smart fabrics by the members of SYSTEX, a European consortium organized to coordinate research and break through some of these barriers.
Swiss embroidery company Forster Rohner is developing embroidery systems for conductive materials called e-broidery™. The embroidery allows flexibility in placing electronic circuitry or LED's dubbed "solar sequins" using soft conductive thread.
CuteCircuit, a design team specializing in wearable, fashionable electronics, has created Twirkle T-shirts - cotton/elastane shirts are decorated with LEDs activated by harvesting energy from the wearer's movements.
Finland's CLOTHING+ uses automated techniques such as laser cutting, lamination and ultra-sonic welding to integrate sensors and electronic connectors with textiles for clothing. The company's vision is the commercial implementation of comfortable, invisible health-monitoring sensors into vests, socks, hats, underwear, bandages, carpets and bed sheets.
TITV, the Institute for Special Textiles and Flexible Materials in Greiz, Germany, is focused on new developments in illuminated textiles, including their ELITEX® conductive threads of polyamide with a silver coating and an elastic ELITEX® with LYCRA®. The yarns are said to be appropriate for weft or warp knitting and guaranteed washable. The company is also working with optical fibres and electroluminescent textiles.
The MicroFlex project at the University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science is working to develop MEMS (Micro Electronic Mechanical Systems) on fabrics via screen and inkjet printing, using specially-developed functional inks. And at Nottingham Trent University, Professor Tilak Dias and team have developed a method of encapsulating micro-devices in yarn for knitted apparel fabrics or thread for RFID techologies.
Ohmatex in Denmark is a research and development partner to inventors of smart fabrics, with clients ranging from space to sports, medical and safety. The company is working with Philips and other partners on the EU's PLACE-it project (Platform for Large Area Conformable Electronics by Integration) and will develop the connectors for new large area conformable illuminating textiles.
The goal of the smart fabrics community is to develop smart fabrics that are affordable enough to be mass produced for consumers, it is only a matter of time before the right application is developed.
Source: Innovation in Textiles
Top image: Inventorspot
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