When thinking about how far innovation has brought us in every aspect of life, it can be asked…is there a line? Is it always beneficial to have a smart or connected product, or is it just the cool factor? In the case of e-Textiles, yep smart clothes, it’s a question worth asking. With a seemingly unlimited number of devices available, do we need smart textiles?
Smart Textiles vs e-Textiles
Smart textiles and e-Textiles are not exactly interchangeable. Smart textiles are defined as material that brings added value to the user. This can apply to clothing, but also to furniture, curtains, or anything made with fabric. There are 3 different classifications of smart textiles:
- Passive – Provides additional benefits as-is, such as quick-drying or UV protection.
- Active – Reacts to external factors like the material of a car seat recognizing the driver through pressure points.
- Ultra-Smart – Detects and adapts to the environment, like what can be found in a spacesuit.
Essentially, smart textiles have been a part of our lives for a long time, without getting the credit they deserve.
e-Textiles, on the other hand, are different. These are usable fabrics that contain electronic solutions embedded within them. The scale of possibility can vary from having fixed lighting features or sensors to full-on mini processors installed up your sleeve (literally). This is commonly referred to as fibretronics.
How is Fibretronics Possible?
There isn’t one way to create e-textiles, different companies have their own secret sauce. It is still a technology that is advancing, with a lot of innovation to come. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been looking at e-textiles for some time now. They have recently developed a variety of different materials serving different applications.
One example is a form-fitting fabric that recognizes its wearer’s activities, like walking, running, and jumping. By digitally knitting a particular plastic yarn into a softer fabric with a specific pattern, they were able to greatly improve the precision of the embedded pressure sensors. Then, they slightly melted the plastic, which is a process known as thermoforming. This step was crucial in their findings because material is generally soft and limber. Cloth shifts as the wearer moves around and creates noise. This noise detracts from the precision of the movements and makes it difficult to get solid readings.
Through thermoforming, the woven plastic hardens and then keeps the original shape. They were then able to take this new fabric and integrate a wireless circuit within it. They created a smart shoe and yoga mat, integrated machine learning software within it and produced a product accurate enough to predict future movements.
Are Smart Textiles and e-Textiles Necessary in Life?
Yes. Yes they are.
Looking at smart textiles, at the end of the day…imagine not having them now. Smart clothes like waterproof jackets, warm winter boots or performance apparel for sports are part of the day to day. They are simply recognized more for their beauty over their brains.
Next, imagine the possibilities to come. Take the example of a smart shoe. If someone were to injure their ankle, imagine a device to track their rehabilitation. It would track how the person steps and the speed in which they do it. Any healthcare professional could take that data, in real-time, and assess the best next steps for recovery.
Finally, take the example even further than that. Imagine a diabetic patient wearing shoes with sensors embedded throughout and machine learning software doing its thing. This technology could potentially detect the formation of ulcers before it is too late, saving the patient’s foot.
Can we Rely on Smart Textiles?
Testing smart textiles is an interesting challenge. With the variance in applications and uses, quality control and standardization are still up in the air. With electronic components worn close to the body, considerations need to be taken to prevent health hazards but also maximize efficiency. With interconnections of different components within the fabric performance, durability, and esthetics may suffer.
To approach the testing of these different technologies, the sensors and actuators are grouped into categories based on signal transmission or how the sensors and or actuators are triggered. These categories are thermal, mechanical, chemical/biological, electrical, physical environment, optical, and power. Each test application requires a different set of skills and proper planning. Now that challenges like durability, stress, the environment and the effects of washing are being recognized, the reliability of these products are improving.
With all things considered, smart textiles are a gift that are often taken for granted and are used more often than we realize. It will be their time to shine in the near future.
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