The New Smart Fabrics: Smart Materials and Integrated Sensors

The term “smart textiles” has been around for years, but has received new currency in an era that is examining the business opportunities that are emerging from smart materials and the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Based on this new environment, there are two kinds of smart textiles that will generate significant revenues over the next decade.

Smart textiles using smart materials: These are traditional textile products in which the materials used, the fabrication processes, or added coatings provide a specific function such as self-cleaning, self-healing, color-changing, antibacterial properties, or heating.

There have been textiles that fit this description for a long time, but mostly they had novelty value or they were entirely passive—they avoided stains, rather than actively removed them as a hydrophobic-coated textile would do, for example.

Smart textiles using sensors and electronics: These textiles offer functionality delivered with sensors and electronics. They will frequently need on-board power sources and perhaps communications chips to communicate with a computer or a smartphone,

Again, there is an older form of this kind of textile, which like the older kind of “coated” smart textile is played out in the market place.

This category includes wearable computers, where the electronics are relatively lightweight but are completely separate from the textile and need to be removed before washing. Clothing like jackets with sewn-in LED displays that are controlled from a smart phone are not really smart textiles in the way that the term “smart textiles” is currently used.

Integration Defining the Opportunities in Smart Materials

As these caveats about the older generations of textiles suggest, current opportunities in this space have a lot to do with integration.  In the archetypical smart material-based smart textile, the smart textile is actually made from smart materials.  In the archetypical sensor-based smart material, the sensor is somehow merged with the textile, not just sewn in.

These considerations are of particular importance for all points on the smart textiles supply chain, but are most obviously critical at the manufacturing and materials level.

The path to full integration:  This is the goal toward which active smart textiles are moving, where the textile is the sensor and all function is intimately embedded in the fabric itself. Integration will ultimately extend to mean clothing that is also self-powered. Fabric transistors are not yet a commercial product, but they are in the R&D pipeline.

The smart textiles sector is nowhere close to achieving such goals, however, the closer smart textiles get to the type of product described above the more they can make a claim to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

Enticing the customer:  All of the above is relevant to new product development in the context of smart textiles, but it does not constitute a proof that customers will buy into the concept of smart textiles.  Indeed, the older generations of smart textiles, described above have never been more than niches.

The big question for the new generation of smart textiles, is whether additional intelligence will be enough to get more people to buy into smart textiles.  In other words, will today’s smart materials and embedded sensors create sufficient value to get customers to open their purses?  There are, in fact, two ways that this value will be created:

• Leveraging existing functionalities.  For example, old-fashioned waterproofed fabrics will be replaced by omniphobic ones; tear-proof fabrics will evolve into self-repairing ones.  The marketing task is simplified here because customers are asked to buy something similar to what they are already buying—the selling task is already achieved to some extent

• Creating new values: As a reviewer of the Ralph Lauren smart polo shirt put it, $300 may be a lot to pay for a shirt but it is a steal for a personal trainer who is available 24/7 to push you to your limits. However, such things are easy to say.  It is much harder to convince customers.

Still, technology can help with such tasks. For example, improvements in conductive threads and fabric sensors can result in more accurate data on heart rate or breathing.

Challenges:  The paths to such functionality and the associated market opportunities will not be easy:

• As continuing difficulties with existing printed electronics show, it isn’t easy to move all electronic functions into printed or woven materials

• Scaling up processes is a huge challenge

There is every reason to believe that similar challenges will beset the new smart textiles sector. And it remains to be seen how much function should be incorporated into clothing in order to produce products that meet customer requirements for price, comfort, style, and ease of use.  Translated into economic terms, this means that there are real risks for firms entering the smart textiles business at this point in time and they will need assurance that the likely revenue generation will be worth it.

Merging Fashion and Function

Adding to this risk is the inherent uncertainties that are built into any business where fashion is a major factor.  And while the principal concern of smart materials and sensor firms that are in the smart materials sector is function, they cannot avoid the fashion issue either.

The most successful products in the smart textile space will be those that can meet the twin objectives of appealing design and useful function. However, the fashion issue can still be sidelined to some degree or it may be taken care of through collaborations.

Uniforms:  Certain sectors, such as clothing worn by patients in hospitals and by soldiers, is almost exempt from the fashion aspect, but comfort and ease of use is still important in these applications. So the design component is there still.

Sports clothes and collaboration:  But for sports apparel and everyday clothing, the merging of design and function is creating more opportunities for collaboration between fashion designers and engineers and between companies that make textiles, smart materials and clothing.

In some cases, joint efforts between well-known fashion or sportswear brands and technology companies are providing a springboard for increased consumer awareness and acceptance.

A Bottom Line

As n-tech sees it then, the new breed of smart textiles has a path to success that earlier generations of smart textiles and clothing never had.  This is because (1) today’s smart materials and sensors that power these new textiles are more highly functional than what has gone before and (2) smart textiles are no longer outlier products, they fit nicely into the IoT and smart material memes that are now finding their way into popular culture.

This should go some way to winning customers for smart textiles; a path that consumers have feared to tread in the past. That said, the smart textile market will not emerge naturally. It will take continued evolution of technology, especially more intelligent materials, better conductive fibers, and smaller and more flexible sensors, with nanomaterials that better enable integration of function directly into fabrics.

The successful expansion of the smart textile market will also rely on more collaborations in order to create products that are not mere novelties, as was the case with the first generation of smart clothing, but meet consumer needs and provide function and value that will compel enough people to buy them. Collaborations are nothing new here.  But this is yet another area where the latest generation of smart textiles might benefit from “fashion”—in this case the current fashion for creating business “ecosystems,” as an important part of strategy.

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