The apparel sector is undergoing a fusion led by technology, automation and interactive manufacturing. While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is spiraling in the factory domain, consumers are looking for wearables those can serve few attributes of their daily life.
Say, for instance, we are looking for a t-shirt that monitor can our heart, measure the chemical composition of our body fluids. And, here comes the concept of Smart Textiles. Please do not confuse it with the sci-fi costumes riveted with wires and zigzag circuits, it is simply a comfy attire with few technical features.
On a lighter note: the days for bullet-proof vests are going to an end and, now it’s time to embrace technology-proof vests otherwise spelled as Smart Textile.
Smart textiles are defined as textiles that can sense and react via an active control mechanism to environmental conditions or stimuli from mechanical, thermal, chemical, electrical or magnetic sources. The majority of the smart textile applications being concentrated in 4 main fields: protection & defense, sports & fitness, industrial and technical applications (transportation, architecture) and medical & healthcare (European Union, 2019).
Moreover, smart textiles provide a convenient means of gathering data about consumers which, in turn, can provide brands and retailers with invaluable insight into the lifestyles of consumers and how products are used after the point of sale.
Currently, there are many producing companies in the world Smart Textile industry, especially in Europe and North America. The main market players are Textronics, Peratech, DuPont, Clothing+, Outlast, etc. North America is the largest supplier of Smart Textile.
The second place is Europe; following North America with the production market share of 30.5% and the sales market share over 30%. Asia (e.g., China) is another important market of Smart Textile, enjoying a 5% production market share and 14% sales market share (Global Smart Textile Market Report, 2019).
It is very evident that significant strides have been made in the mainstreaming and commercialization of wearable technologies such as fitness trackers and smartwatches, and such developments prompted innovation in smart textiles and clothing. The world market for smart textiles stood at US$2.75 billion in 2016, (US$$1.67 billion in the US alone). According to industry insiders, the rapid adoption of smart textile technology in the apparel and fashion industries is set to give a US$130 billion boost to the apparel market by 2025.
There are myriad fronts of smart textiles. E-textile is the most happening term within this domain. It is also spelled as smart clothing, smart garments, electronic textiles, intelligent textiles, etc. The main catch of smart textiles is – it is versatile and offers cutting-edge features to look at textiles and technology.
It is a branch of technical textile, therefore, fabrics of smart textiles are developed and manufactured to include technologies that provide the wearer with a flavor of increased functionality and interactive usage. So, it is much anticipated that smart textiles may spearhead revolutionary change since it can do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow.
Theoretically, smart textiles can be classified into two categories. One is aesthetic and another is performance-enhancing. Aesthetic examples entail everything from fabrics, say, for instance, the chromatic appearance of a wearable meaning change of original color. Additionally, some fabrics can gather energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound or heat.
On the other hand, performance-enhancing smart textiles is much evident in the domains of the athletic, extreme sports sector and military industries. One cutting-edge feature within performance-enhancing smart textiles is – it is possible to maintain constant body temperature using phase-change technology.
Smart textiles also widely used as protective clothing to guard against extreme environmental hazards like radiation and the effects of space travel. In this connection, the health and beauty industry is reportedly taking advantage of these innovations.
Furthermore, smart clothing serves an important role in remote monitoring of chronically ill patients or those undergoing rehabilitation since it promotes the concept of preventative healthcare. Moreover, smart textiles are also used for fashion purposes.
Technology(s) involved in smart textiles:
Various technological domains are commonly used in smart textiles. Common and important ones are given below:
|Fiber optics||Phase change materials||Nanotechnologies for fiber and fabric coating
|Organic or plastic electronics
|Conductive fibers and yarns – metals, wires & conductive polymers||Quantum tunneling composites for switching devices||Biomaterials||Piezoelectric resistance||Light-emitting polymers & diodes|
|Photovoltaic and solar cells||Photoluminescence||Plasma technologies||Photochromic materials||Holography|
|Shape memory alloys and polymers||Radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags||Global positioning and wireless communications||Microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS)||Microencapsulation for therapy delivery|
Key takeaways and recommendations
- Smart textiles are finding expanding opportunities in key application segments, such as personal protective clothing, military & defense, fashion and entertainment, healthcare, and so on
- Key growth markets for smart textiles include sports & fitness, healthcare as well as military/defense. There are also opportunities for smart textiles in such areas as personal protective equipment for first responders, and, over time, in applications such as transportation, etc.
- Over the forecast period, increasing opportunities will exist for active smart materials containing low-power sensors, electronics, and energy sources and energy harvesting capability
- E-textiles with power and data distribution capabilities will emerge and find opportunities in such areas as military uniforms
- There will be increasing opportunities to implement advanced materials (such as carbon nanotubes or embedded optical fibers), and fibers that provide an energy source
- It is recommended that smart textile developers or providers focus on making the manufacture of textiles and electronics more compatible
- Smart textile developers can also benefit from creatively focusing on addressing a market need, rather than developing technology in search of an application.
It is worth remembering that smart textiles must be comfortable, their technology must be unobtrusive, they must withstand a difficult and variable environment and, particularly for medical and emergency applications, they must be reliable.
Ensuring these requires sufficient research is said to be the major shortcoming till now and it must be overcome to realize the considerable benefits and lucrative market potential of smart textiles and intelligent fabrics (STIF). In reality, smart fabrics need to be more than ‘cool technology’ and have to be prepared for fulfilling cutting edge needs and provide a smart solution.
However, some technical issues have yet to be addressed. Key challenges facing the industry include the complexity of manufacturing smart textile and clothing products and the need for small and extremely efficient power sources. The successful commercialization of smart textiles demands to enable the textile infrastructure and electrical components to work together, and establishing appropriate standards.