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Smart fabrics - the next digital revolution


How do textiles become smart?

Fabrics always surround us. This makes them an ideal carrier for smart technology. The combination leads to smart textiles - a development that could find its way into many areas of everyday life in the coming years. So-called smart textiles are textiles with fibres that have new mechanical surfaces or protective properties, but which and also offer innovative additional benefits. They assume functions that were previously not textile, such as recording and transporting information, lighting, heating, healing wounds or monitoring vital functions. The clothing itself becomes the sensor. Electrical conductivity is the main feature, and the direct connection to the Internet opens intelligent new possibilities that make such electronic textiles "smart" or even "intelligent". Electronic assemblies are thus integrated directly into fabrics. In the future, a completely different human-machine interaction seems possible: the entire body can communicate with the machine. Keyboard and mouse as the most important control elements will face new "textile" competition.

Already today there is such full-body interaction between man and machine to buy. The US companies Levi's and Google have worked together to develop a jacket that helps cyclists in city traffic, for example, when they don't have a free hand for their mobile phones. The Jacquard technology developed by Google allows clothing manufacturers to integrate technology directly into their products. The e-textile connects to the smartphone and the wearer can then control it in the pocket: gestures such as wiping or typing on the sleeve are used to answer calls, voice navigation to find the way or to select his or her favorite music. The material remains so thin that it hardly differs from "normal" textiles.

Technically, this is achieved using microelectronic processes such as low-temperature soldering, bonding with conductive and non-conductive adhesives, and temperature-free force-fit connections such as crimping. The application of contactable material with the aid of non-conductive thermoplastic adhesives is a simple and robust technology that already meets high-reliability requirements today. Embroidery is also being investigated for the introduction of conductive material. Alternatively, stretchable electronic systems are manufactured from polyurethane substrates that can be laminated to textile substrates in standard processes.

Beautiful, functional or both: a barely foreseeable range of future application possibilities

This means that the textile industry is facing an unprecedented upheaval. In the fashion sector, innovative start-ups, in particular, have already recognized the creative scope of electronic clothing. This already offers many new possibilities, especially for small brands, to stand out from the tough competition. Applications here often still have a playful aspect. For example, the self-proclaimed "electric tailors" Perner-Wilson and Satomi produce individual pieces on demand under the name Kobakant, for which they post instructions on their website in an open-source manner. For example, there is "Priscilla: The Burning Bolero", which begins to glow when music sounds - sounds are recognized by the textile and played back to the environment in the form of light signals. Or a vest embroidered with pearls and LED lamps, which begins to glow when inhaled. A sensational gadget for the client, telling stories in front of an audience. Functional clothing with microsensors integrated into the textile is already a real alternative in sports today, for example to the often-obstructive chest strap or the rather inaccurate pulse watch. They conveniently and reliably collect vital, speed and GPS data from the athlete. In addition to the wellness market, the health sector is currently seen as a driver for the development of intelligent substances. In patient care, for example, outerwear can measure vital parameters and thus contribute to comprehensive patient care. In the future, carpets could report falls and bandages could provide information about healing.

Textiles are thus ascribed to a digital future that goes far beyond the obvious applications of portable electronics in the clothing industry. This opens up new market opportunities in many other sectors that use textiles or, as a result of changing application possibilities, will use them in the future. Changes are foreseeable in the automotive, packaging and, in particular, medical technology sectors. Whether integrated location options in fire-fighting equipment, with the help of which the head of operations can locate his team at any time, the classic seat occupancy sensors in cars, in the construction sector, for example, snow load measurement on roofs or smart dike covers, which report weak at an early stage in order to prevent flooding - there are virtually no limits to creativity in the development of new areas of application for e-textiles.

Apart from the new electronic possibilities, smart solutions in the textile sector have generally been innovation drivers in recent years and further innovations are expected soon. The development of high-tech textiles is often inspired by nature - a whole field of research, bionics, has developed. New types of patterns that reproduce shark skin using nanotechnology can, for example, greatly reduce the flow resistance of ships or aircraft compared to their counterparts with smooth surfaces. The resulting fuel savings make an active contribution to environmental protection. Research is currently concentrating on the reproduction of spider silk, which is much more resilient than steel at the same weight, and which could in the future make it possible to produce new types of clothing, but also bridge constructions that have not been seen before. The many textile-based composite materials are already indispensable in the industry today: they have conquered the aircraft and vehicle construction industries and are the material from which the rotors of modern wind turbines are built.

Composite materials

Current challenges of the digital textile revolution

How do you wash fabric with many cables woven into it and electronics integrated? This is where development efforts are currently concentrated. Besides, there is wearing comfort. Functionality and electro-style lose their appeal when it pinches and squawks everywhere. Although the risk of electric shock from sweating or rain is ruled out by the low currents in digital clothing, safety aspects still play a major role, as the clothing fits directly to the body - and by no means, all the challenges in this area have been overcome. Framework conditions, such as standardized test methods, have to be created in this young market. In addition to companies, research institutions are also important players for further development. Before clear standards for the recycling of smart textiles were developed with their help, the owner should not simply throw them away, but send them to the hazardous waste.

From niche gadget to million market: opportunities for German industry

In the medium term, it can be foreseen that smart textiles will remain premium products even at the beginning of mass production. This offers an innovative high-wage country like Germany with its many medium-sized companies and company founders good opportunities to play a leading role right from the start. Jörg Ohnemus, Deputy Head of the Digital Economy Division at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, predicts that electronic textiles will be produced in large quantities in Germany soon. While in 2017 intelligent substances generated sales of around 1.3 billion euros worldwide and 230 million euros in Germany, the researcher expects global sales to rise to five billion euros by 2022, of which 700 million euros will be in Germany alone. Although forecasts for such a young market are of course fraught with uncertainties, new opportunities for the domestic textile market are certainly available.

In the long term, smart fabrics will become more and more relevant for increased cooperation between man and machine. This requires fabrics for both sides: e.g. sensor gloves for humans to record or trigger certain reactions, and textiles for robots to make them more aware of their surroundings. E-textiles will also revolutionize the traditionally strong capital goods industry in Germany.

The future of the German industry is not only digital but also textile.

Sources: izm.fraunhofer.de | zdf.de | din.de | lead-innovation.com | fashionunited.com | edison.handelsblatt.com

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