Warwick Mills shows the kind of innovative know-how common among American textile companies that have survived the fierce global competition for the recent years.
The small private company in New Hampshire has climbed steadily up the economic ladder of its industry to produce specialised fabrics that weave in ceramics, metals and fibreglass. These high-value materials are used in products like safety gloves for industrial workers and body armour for the police and military.
Now, Warwick Mills is joining the Defense Department, universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and nearly 50 other companies in an ambitious $320 million project to push the American textile industry into the digital age. The key to the plan is a special ingredient: embedding a variety of tiny semiconductors and sensors into fabrics that can see, hear, communicate, store energy, warm or cool a person or monitor the wearer’s health.
“These would be high-tech offerings that change the game for the companies involved and for the industry,” said Charles Howland, president and chief engineer of Warwick Mills.
The advanced fabrics project, which is being announced on Friday, represents a new frontier for the Internet of Things. The term describes putting sensors and computing in all manner of physical objects — jet engines, power generators, cars, farm equipment and thermostats, among others — to measure and monitor everything from machines in need of repair to traffic patterns. Venture capitalists, start-ups and big corporations like General Electric and IBM are rushing to Internet of Things technology.
This latest initiative, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, is intended to create a national network of research and development, design and manufacturing capabilities for the new fabrics. The products of this emerging field are being called “functional fabrics,” “connected fabrics,” “textile devices” and “smart garments.”
The field requires contributions from many disciplines, including materials science, electrical engineering, software development, human-computer interaction, advanced manufacturing and fashion design.
Clothes filled with sensors and chips could give new meaning to the term wearables, now mainly wristbound digital devices like a fitness monitor or an Apple Watch.
The Defense Department is investing in developing new combat uniforms that might communicate and change colour, signalling friend or foe to help prevent deaths by friendly fire, or uniforms filled with optical sensors to make a soldier invisible to an enemy’s night-vision goggles. So far, the Pentagon, more than 30 universities, 49 companies and the state governments of Massachusetts and Georgia have agreed to participate, and more are expected to join.
Some of the pioneering research has been done at M.I.T., which is leading the project. Advanced study, in the precompetitive stage, will be published and shared.
The project also envisions creating about two dozen start-up incubators, the organisers say. The incubator-generated ideas, according to the plan, could be swiftly translated into commercial products, which would be manufactured at existing American mills.
Creating jobs, as well as technology, will be a measure of the project’s success or failure. It hopes to reverse the steady erosion of textile jobs in the United States and, according to the project proposal, generate more than 50,000 jobs in 10 years across a range of industries.
“This is about reimagining what a fabric is, and rebirthing textiles into a high-tech industry,” said Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at M.I.T., who is director of the advanced fabrics project.
The broad linking of government, universities and corporations to both advance research and develop new markets is a model advocated in a new book, “The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations” (Oxford University Press), by Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. In an interview, Mr Shneiderman called the advanced fabrics project “a well-crafted plan.”
The participating companies span many industries. They include chip makers like Intel and Analog Devices; textile and apparel makers like Milliken, Nike and VF Corporation; materials manufacturers like Corning and DuPont; and health and medical device companies like Medtronic. Intel has separately worked on blending computers and fashion.
For some companies, the functional fabrics are a potential add-on market. For others, they could disrupt their businesses.
Ray Stata, co-founder and chairman of Analog Devices, said it was “pretty early to speculate” about the opportunity for the semiconductor industry. “But I do think that using the advanced technology of this country to rebuild the textile industry is an exciting concept,” he said.
The stakes are higher for VF Corporation, one of the world’s largest apparel makers, whose brands include Wrangler, Lee, Timberland, the North Face and Nautica. The company has a global workforce of more than 60,000 workers, producing 1.5 million items of apparel a day.
Until about two years ago, VF did not have an R&D operation, said Marty Lawrence, a general manager for innovation. Instead, it mainly tapped research efforts at universities and by its suppliers.
But eying trends in the industry and technology, VF has hired scientists and set up four innovation centres in the United States that focus on areas including new fabrics for bluejeans and cognitive science. The functional fabrics project, Mr Lawrence said, represents “the future of apparel.”
In Inman, S.C., Norman H. Chapman runs Inman Mills, a company founded by his great-grandfather in 1901. Inman Mills hit rough times in the early 2000s, cutting its workforce by more than half, to 500 people.
Today, the company’s payroll is up to 700. That is large because it navigated a transition from making shirting and apparel lining to more specialised, flame-resistant fabrics, with fibres including silica and fibreglass. One product is a tissue for the interior lining of bed mattresses. If there is a fire, the silica and fibreglass become a seal, blocking oxygen from getting into the mattress so it is less likely to burn.
Add another sensor-filled strand to the yarn, Mr. Chapman said, and the mattress lining could be used to track sleep patterns and health. “Our future depends on how we can innovate with fabrics,” he said.
How large a market functional fabrics may become, and how soon, depends on more than technology. There are issues of cost, usability, demand, marketing and design.
Genevieve Dion, a former fashion designer whose couture clothes were sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, is participating in the project. Today, she is the director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory at Drexel University.
A garment, Ms Dion said, may be able to cool you, warm you and monitor your health, and still be a flop. It has to be affordable, lightweight, withstand repeated washings and look attractive.
“If someone is wearing a smart garment and you can’t tell,” Ms Dion said. “I will have succeeded.”
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