Smart Fabrics Can Help Boost Smart Wearable Industry

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Smart fabrics were initially developed for performance-enhancing purpose for professional athletes, but now their applications are expanding across various industries.

Lighting up: a woven fabric that incorporates fibre-based LEDs (Credit: https://physicsworld.com)Lighting up: a woven fabric that incorporates fibre-based LEDs (Credit: https://physicsworld.com)

The traditional concept of clothing is steadily witnessing a change with advances in technological innovations. Smart fabrics, also known e-textiles or intelligent fabrics, are making new waves in the smart wearable industry.

As the name suggests, smart fabrics can deliver many smart functions unlike conventional fabrics. These smart fabrics are developed by integrating technologies into fabrics that can interact, sense and react to environmental stimuli. These have the ability of performing several electronic functions, from heating up fabrics to collecting data and sending alerts. Smart fabrics are currently in their infancy; however, these are set to gain a firm upper hand in the clothing industry in the future.

In smart fabrics, digital components are woven into traditional fabrics. These components can be biomedical sensors, batteries, microcontrollers, fibre-optics, electronic chips, wearable antennae and so on. These fabrics are active and vibrant materials that possess actuation and sensing properties. Components are incorporated using various methods, such as conductive fibres and multi-layer 3D printing.

Many people think that fabrics with embedded components are not comfortable to wear and can restrict body movement. On the contrary, these fabrics are flexible, light, hassle-free and user-friendly. Their main motive is to give a sense of safety and added value to the wearer. These can regulate body temperature and change colours as per body heat. These garments are very much like ordinary clothes except that these can sense and act to environmental radiation and hazards in a predetermined way.

Smart textiles can be categorised into three types: passive, active and ultra-smart, as explained next.

Passive smart fabrics

Wearable clothing in this category is less complex and novel in terms of functionality. These have features that can sense and gauge movements of users and the surrounding environment. These fabrics are anti-microbial, anti-static, anti-odour, bullet-proof, etc.

Active smart fabrics

Both sensors and actuators are used in such smart textiles. These are aptly called active smart fabrics because these can easily switch their functionalities as per (unstable) environments. Active smart textiles are capable of heat storage and regulation. Besides, these are water-resistant and vapour-permeable (hydrophilic/non-porous).

Ultra-smart fabrics

These textiles can sense, react and acclimatise their condition(s) to given external weather circumstances. These follow the concept of artificial intelligence (AI)—these operate like a brain, and have the abilities of cognition, reasoning and activating. Though embedded with advanced processing technology, these are worn comfortably like normal daily clothing.

Smart fabrics were initially developed for performance-enhancing purpose for professional athletes, but now their applications are expanding across various industries.

Sports and fitness

New technology advances in sportswear make it possible for players to monitor their activities and better their performances. Smart garments capture their body temperature, breathing patterns and other physiological parameters. These can also track the number of steps and distances covered, and check performance records.

Besides, smart fabrics can actively stimulate muscles by using electrical muscle stimulation. These can also protect from many possible injuries and health hazards.

Health

In the healthcare domain, devices are being embedded into blankets, shirts and other essential tools. Data from the devices allows tracking of physiological status of patients efficiently. The biggest advantage of wireless, sensors-embedded garments is that these can remotely monitor the health of terminally-ill patients.

Also, these reduce the number of visits to healthcare centres as the devices themselves provide updates on the health status of patients.

Military and defence

Smart clothing helps increase the safety and effectiveness of military forces. In emergency cases, smart clothing can be extremely useful and quick to send out alerts.

For the safety and protection of military personnel on duty in harsh weather conditions, real-time information is required, and smart clothing equipped with communication and weather-resistant features have proven to be effective.

In addition, these textiles have colour-changing properties to match the environment. These can send vital signs in case of any mishaps. In response, the concerned unit can conduct a remote monitoring of the situation and fix the problems.

At present, uptake of smart clothing is still witnessing a sluggish pace in comparison with other wearable products. High price is one of the restraining factors in the successful commercialisation of smart fabrics.

Consequently, their popularity among regular consumers is yet to be achieved. And most smart clothing products do not look very attractive, which results in their low consumption. Awareness about the USP of smart garments is still weak to strike a positive impact on consumers.

Another aspect crippling the growth of the e-textile domain is lack of development in terms of universal standards and IP protection for smart textiles. Therefore stakeholders are hesitant to scale up their business in the absence of standardisation.

There are various other technical challenges. Integration of numerous sensors gives out hordes of information, which makes it difficult to classify.

The fluctuating nature of data questions the accuracy and reliability of output information. Therefore more focus on research in addition to involvement from manufacturers and stakeholders can address the challenges plaguing the domain.


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