The next generation of smart technologies — think wearables — will be introduced in a variety of unprecedented ways. In other words, we will move from the smartwatches, smartphones and fitness trackers of today to truly ‘wearable’ and integrated devices, in every sense of the word. Smart glasses, for instance will look like conventional glasses; there will be almost no indication that advanced technologies are embedded within.
The next step in that evolution is, of course, smart clothing or textiles — rightfully dubbed e-textiles. Imagine a shirt that includes a heart-rate tracker inside or a jacket with a contactless payment system embedded in the sleeve. These scenarios describe precisely what the smart clothing of the future might look like, or rather how they might function.
Before the technology can really take off, however, several advancements must be made regarding how the electronics are embedded within fabrics. If you weave a conventional circuit board into cloth, it’s not going to work very well. For starters, the resulting clothing won’t be flexible, and will instead be more rigid thanks to the board (s) material. Additionally, you would never be able to wash the clothing as it would likely ruin the electronics built-in.
A more elegant solution is needed to move forward with smart fabrics and textiles, and that’s where elastomers come into play.
What are elastomers?
Elastomers are nothing more than a unique type of rubber material — or polymers — which also happen to be incredibly flexible and durable. They can stretch and warp in a variety of ways without breaking in conventional terms.
They matter when it comes to textiles, or e-textiles, because of the sheer potential they offer when embedding components within fabrics. By modifying the elastomers to include electrically conductive elements, the entire creation can be embedded within certain materials — such as fabric.
To this end, elastomers can be used to produce and integrate a variety of electronic components inside textile pieces. Some examples include elastomer sensors that can measure strain and pressure, heating elements, or even some that can act as conductive surfaces.
The type of silicone used for these elastomers is skin-friendly and non-toxic, washable and moisture-resistant, and of course, extremely flexible. Furthermore, they can be applied using modern printing techniques or by ironing them on.
Materials that work well with elastomer components include polyester and cotton, both of which can be permanently attached to the polymer. Support for new textiles may be achieved through further modification, although, as of right now, those are the only two supported materials.
Ultimately, elastomers can withstand the conditions commonly subjected to textiles and certain fabrics. It means that they can be safely embedded within clothing, without fear of damage or rapid deterioration.
What does this mean for the industry?
While certain materials are incredibly promising — elastomer included — there are additional requirements in regards to using the components in mass-produced goods. Can the materials be acquired in large amounts, for example? Are there ways to quickly yet accurately reproduce their inclusion in modern textiles?
Again, this is another reason why elastomers are so promising. For direct textile printing processes and more conventional procedures, the elastomer sensors and components can be imprinted in the necessary material in a remarkably short time. More importantly, it can be done both precisely and reliably even at incredibly fast speeds — meaning there’s no substantial fear of regular printing failures.
It holds up to mass production standards as well. Plus, in cases where ironing processes are ideal, it can also be handled on a grand scale like direct printing. Applications such as heating elements or pressure sensors can be ironed on or printed, both with phenomenal success rates.
To provide a real-world example, one of the potential uses for elastomer-based sensors would be to liven up sneakers and athletic footwear. They are already used in modern shoes because of their inherent properties, particularly the flexibility they offer. But taking that a step further and embedding electronic components within the material could mean turning sneakers into fitness trackers.
Smart clothing and smart fabrics are no longer just conceptual, thanks to elastomers and their potential applications as e-textiles are relevant and achievable. Just we should start seeing the technology more readily available to consumers, which is the real test of a technology’s readiness for the market.