THE INSTITUTEWearable technology, once the domain of rigid fitness wristbands and health monitors, is showing more of its softer side. High-tech companies and designers are increasingly moving to incorporate sensors to create smart clothing. By simply touching the cuff of a shirt, for example, a wearer might activate smartphone apps.
Google has teamed up with the Levi Strauss Co. to offer a clothing line, Jacquard by Google, that has conductive thread woven in. Its new Commuter X jacket [above], which sells for US $350, includes a battery-operated snap tag that lights up when the wearer’s smartphone receives a text message and vibrates when a ride-hailing car arrives.
At last winter’s Winter Olympics, held in PyeongChang, South Korea, members of the U.S. Olympics team wore Ralph Lauren–branded parkas and bomber jackets that featured heat-conducting ink made with carbon and silver that was bonded to the garment’s lining. The strands of ink were connected to a battery pack, which kept the athletes warm for up to 11 hours. The coats’ wearers could adjust the temperature with a mobile app.
E-textile expert Jesse Jur talked to The Institute about the state of smart garments, including some of the challenges still to be overcome. Jur is an associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry, and science at North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles, in Raleigh. He has published several research articles on e-textiles that are available in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.
The Internet of Things is starting to make its way into the textile business, Jur says. There also have been improvements in health-monitoring applications that can sense the wearer’s body temperature and make automatic adjustments in the clothing.
“Traditionally smart garments were made for sports and fitness purposes as well as for biomedical monitoring, to take various measurements,” he says. “What has evolved is a better understanding of that data, new ways of gathering information about the user other than from a smartphone app, and improvements in integrating technologies more seamlessly into garments.”
Thanks to work by standards organizations, the washability of the garments is improving, according to Jur. The Levi’s jacket, for example, can withstand up to 10 washes, although the snap tag must be removed before laundering.
Jur says his Nano-EXtended Textiles (NEXT) research group has historically worked on devising materials that could be used to help bind electronics to textiles or to have conductive yarns sewn into knitted structures. Now the NEXT group is working on automating the process of integrating electronics into the textiles in an affordable way, to speed up production and lower costs—two major concerns for smart-garment manufacturers.
Jesse Jur (left) and designer Allison Bowles discuss a garment being designed for infants that will monitor their biometrics. The outfit is being fabricated by Jur's NEXT research group at North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles. Photo: Marc Hall/North Carolina State University
SPEEDING UP THE PROCESS
Producing textiles is an automated process, but incorporating electronics into clothing is not. Adding individual components to the garments and handling variations of the electronics in the design requires the dexterity of human hands. Because the process is so labor-intensive, the garments are produced on a limited scale, Jur says.
Workers at small job shops piece together the garment sections containing the electronics from small batches. Until the garments can be mass-produced, they’ll remain pricey.
“We’ve been using things like direct-write printing, which is a form of 3D printing on textiles,” Jur says. “We have also been exploring ink-jet printing of conductive materials, as well as incorporating dielectric and polymer semiconducting materials onto textiles.”
Another challenge facing the makers of smart garments is the shortage of textile engineers and designers, according to Jur, who says he is being bombarded by companies looking to hire.
“This particular field requires a unique skill set,” he says. “Engineers and designers need to know early-stage development to be able to translate the company’s idea for how to fabricate a smart garment, or explain how to apply new electronic textile techniques to improve a garment’s durability.”
But he urges caution for those who are interested in entering the industry: Because the smart-garment field is so hot right now, a lot of companies that contact Jur for help are not being methodical about product development—starting, for example, with developing an understanding of customer needs and whether there’s a market for a particular garment.
“They think that if they create the product, the customer base will automatically appear,” he says. “A lot of times, that’s just not the case.”
It’s not until the company has a specification document that includes pricing information that textile engineers can try to determine what materials or processes can meet those requirements.
“Product development is nothing new,” Jur notes, “but it just seems that there are a lot of companies that are not following the general practices and are failing before they start.”