Today’s manufacturers know how essential it is to keep up with customer demands. In the textile and fashion industries, being successful often means integrating high-tech components directly into fabrics. As such, smart clothes are beginning to come onto the market. People wear them like regular clothes, but these garments aren’t the same as wearable technology.
Wearable technology vs. smart clothes
Most wearable technologies are accessories like smartwatches, smart glasses or fitness trackers. Those gadgets typically offer internet connectivity and accompany dedicated apps that help wearers get even more from the products. The wearables have sensors and other electronic components that often send data to the apps and give people trackable metrics or additional helpful information.
On the other hand, smart clothes have electronics sewn directly into the fabrics. Instead of getting dressed for the day and making sure to also strap on a wearable item, people can choose high-tech apparel featuring tech components existing in the material. Much like the care tag sewn into the back of a T-shirt, smart clothes have parts that people barely or don’t notice.
Many people have clothes with tags printed directly onto the fabric instead of existing separately from it. A research team at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology took a similar approach by making a transistor that has a fiber structure. They created it by twisting electrodes to adjust the thread length and thickness of the semiconductor. The conductor achieves currents at over 1,000 times higher than current transistors and doesn’t bother the wearer.
However, some smart clothes have innovative parts that keep wearers more comfortable. Then, they feel the effects positively. Ministry of Supply sells an intelligent jacket fitted with three carbon-fiber heating elements. They deliver up to 10 watts of heat almost instantly. The coat even gets more responsive over time as it learns a wearer’s preferences.
How do manufacturers create smart clothes and textiles?
Smart clothes are relatively new, and manufacturers do not have a single method of creating them with embedded electronics. However, they know consumers wouldn’t want bulky clothing. One of the priorities, then, is to make non-intrusive electronics.
One solution Chinese scientists are working on is to use a 3D printer to weave electronics-filled fibers into the apparel. They put a coaxial needle onto the 3D printer and create patterns with thread. The fabrics contain flexible electronics that allow them to harvest and store electricity as people move. Other techniques manufacturers use require manually sewing the electronics into the fibers, but 3D printing is more efficient.
Elsewhere, United Kingdom-based startup, Pireta, uses a five-step technology based on aqueous chemistry to plate metal onto clothes for conductivity. The third phase of the process involves using a jet-based printer for free-form application of the metal in the desired portions of a garment. The finished metallic patterns retain conductivity for at least 100 wash cycles.
These technologies seem promising. But, bringing them to the point of widespread use requires figuring out how to ramp up production and meet customers’ demands. Inventory management professionals regularly make their facilities more efficient by labeling their receptacles with photos as well as SKUs and updating their warehouse storage layouts annually.
Efficiency also depends on suppliers being honest about what they can offer and when. If smart clothes become more popular, it’ll be essential for companies to assess whether their production practices are sufficient for the masses.
Making smart clothing more stretchable
Besides cutting the bulk from intelligent apparel, manufacturers strive to make their garments highly stretchable. Then, they’re more pleasant to wear and are particularly well-suited to high-motion applications, like team athletics. Making progress with stretchability usually means going down to the textile composition level.
At the University of Buffalo, researchers used a variation of origami called Kirigami to get inspiration for tiny, bendable electronics they say should work well for smart fabrics. Kirigami involves cutting folded paper. The scientists combined a specific kind of polymer known as PthTFB with nanowires to create the electronics. Thanks to Kirigami principles, the PthTFB can stretch up to 2,000%, and it increases its conductivity by three orders of magnitude.
When will smart clothes break into the mainstream?
It will likely be several years before smart clothes are so accessible that people can buy them at many of the places where they usually shop. That’s because most of the textile technologies mentioned here still only exist in the lab. Unforeseen challenges may arise when manufacturers try to scale up their production levels. Then, it may become more difficult than anticipated to maintain speed or quality levels.
Even so, the smart clothing market is on the rise. According to a report from International Data Corporation, the units of smart clothing shipped in 2017 was 3.3 million. Analysts predict that number to rise to 21.6 million by 2021.
Many of the brands already making their marks in the industry specialize in clothes that track vital signs or body movements. As such, the public may first notice more smart clothes available for health or sports purposes compared to those for everyday wear.
The unique manufacturing challenges and the ways smart clothes offer innovative features directly in the apparel separate these garments from electronic wearables. However, both wearables and smart clothes understandably attract interest from consumers.