Electronic textiles (e-textiles) is a nascent research field where scientists and engineers are exploring how to incorporate an array of digital components into traditional clothing. Intrepid researchers at Ohio State have tested how silver metal wires woven into fabric could boost your smartphone reception whereas other organisations are exploring the concept of morphing human skin into a live computer screen.
Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, PhD, is the research director at IDTechEx, which is a global business intelligence firm covering emerging technologies like e-textiles and conductive inks. Khasha worked with his colleague technology analyst James Hayward on a report entitled E-Textiles 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players, published this past June.
Dr Ghaffarzdeh answered a few questions for R&D Magazine through email summarising the report along with highlighting key trends to watch in this developing market.
“Before working at IDTechEx, I completed my masters and PhD at Cambridge and University College London, respectively. For my Ph.D., I collaborated with Samsung to develop and characterise advanced IGZO transistors. We identified a major instability mechanisms, explained its origin and proposed ways of remedying it.
I have been working with James Hayward on this topic. He is a well-known figure in the emerging e-textile industry and has been covering the broader topic of wearable technology since joining the company two years ago. Before this, James completed an MSci in Chemistry at Imperial College London.”
Q: Please discuss your report on e-textiles. Which market sector do you feel is going to become the most lucrative and has the most potential for innovative ideas?
A: “The majority of the recent commercial focus has been on the sports and fitness sectors. At one extreme, companies are targeting near-consumer, or more specifically “weekend warrior” users in the hope to reach a larger volume. At the other end, companies focus on elite sports, where the extra comfort and form factors from e-textiles can be an advantage over existing systems using other non-textile devices.”
However, growth here has been slow, so we have identified areas such as home textiles and the medical space as two sectors that have excellent potential. For the former, many examples so far have been solutions looking for problems; we have an arsenal of technology that can be embedded in textiles, but only now are the larger textile companies beginning to apply these innovative solutions to some of their needs creatively.
In medical, the problems are clearer but the lead times are longer. So far, we have seen examples in patient monitoring, wound care, in hospital use (e.g. on beds, as moisture, pressure or temperature sensors), and more, but we need to understand that development and adoption are lower when the regulation is tighter, and the stakes are higher.”
Google unveiled Project Jacquard a few months ago, which weaves interactive features into clothes through standard looms, one of the most high-profile e-textile projects, but can you elaborate on any potential opportunities or challenges you see for this venture?
“Was awesome to see Levi’s urban cycling jacket with the technology directly integrated after about 18 months of work. It is an interesting collaboration that creates exposure and encourages large players from both the apparel and tech sides to push towards commercial endpoints.
In theory, all of the technology used has been achievable previously e.g. wireless connectivity, textile connectors, woven touch pads, but the Google project does it with an elegance and design-first approach that resonates well with many textiles players, and a marketing message that will make a splash.
As ever, we must be wary of hype; Google projects have a track record of letting the evangelical marketing run away with itself before a product or market is ready and much of this technology is, on paper, nothing new.
However, with the technology understanding beginning to flow through the textiles value chain all the way to the roots, we forecast that many of the previous problems over scalability, platform viability and understanding will enable faster growth.”
Q: Are there any companies/startups you know of that are working on interesting e-textile projects that may warrant more attention?
A: “We have tracked over 80 businesses in the space, and the variety is significant. One thing I would outline is the truly global nature of the industry. We are hosting a conference covering e-textiles this November in Santa Clara, CA with e-textiles speakers already confirmed from Sri Lanka, India, Korea and Japan, as well as the US and Europe, we will represent the global nature of this landscape.
We will be alongside an extensive exhibition of around 250 companies including both e-textiles and wearables, but also related areas such as printed electronics, energy storage & harvesting and more. Ex: Bebop Sensors (fresh from closing a new $5m convertible note just yesterday), Ohmatex and Fisk Alloy to see the breadth of companies that are involved.”
Q: What role will conductive inks play in the future of wearable devices? What issues do conductive ink suppliers need to address to stay competitive?
A: “Conductors are a central part of any e-textile systems. This is a complex space since conductive inks are one of many approaches being concurrently developed for e-textiles.
To name a few, these approaches include metal cabling, textile cabling, conducting knits, conductive wovens, conductive inks, etc. all of which we cover in our latest report on the topic: E-Textiles 2016-2026. There is no clear-cut winner.
This is because some approaches win, say, on ease of integration with existing processes or maturity, whereas others win on increased clothing-like appearance and feel.
The technology composition will, therefore, be a mixed bag in the medium-term as e-textile manufacturers will select their conductor of choice based on the specific requirements of each application and their existing production processes.
In the long-term, e-textile conductive inks will have a larger addressable market than all the other solutions. This is because they offer the highest degree of universal applicability: their integration is a post-production process that can be used by almost any textile manufacturer unless the fabrics cannot withstand high laminating temperatures or are very loose.
The ink technology, however, is not yet the finished article. Achieving washability, direct-on-fabric printability, and high stretchability are challenging technical requirements. The industry is only beginning to accumulate expertise here. Therefore, this is the beginning of the start, and we expect better e-textile conductive inks in the future.
The process currently is also too complicated because the inks need to be printed and cured on a substrate such as TPU before being encapsulated using a similar substrate. The film then needs to be hot laminated of the fabric. This approach improves washability and durability, and does away with the technical headache of having to develop a different ink optimised for each fabric substrate, but screams out to be simplified.”
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