There is a lot of attention paid to ‘smart’ sportswear using wearable technology, but one company is using textile technology to develop fabrics for industrial uses, says Caroline Hayes

There are some garments with sensing, power or communications devices attached, but electronic textiles allow some computing performance, via conductive yarns incorporated into the fabric. These are usually silver or stainless steel for electrical conductivity; although some interesting research using graphene is also generating excitement. (Watch out for updates on graphene in textiles in a later blog.)

The joy of these so-called e-textiles is that they are flexible, cheap to manufacture, strong and permeable. There are no wires to catch on objects as the wearer brushes past and they have strong thermal and electrical resistance.

Sikander Anwar of Fibre2Fashion.com says e-textiles can be divided into two categories, those with classic electronic devices, such as conductors, ICs, LEDs and conventional batteries embedded into the garment, and those where conductors, resistors, transistors or diodes are applied directly to the textile substrates. These are often used in sportswear, to sense or track movements and physical parameters such as heart beat rate.

For weaving, the thread must be coated, usually with copper or silver, for conducting electrical signals. Alternatively, says Anwar, thread can be spun to combine cotton or nylon fibres with metal ones. In fashion and sports, the emphasis is on lightweight, near-invisible elements for sensing or power. In industrial applications, however, textiles still have to be lightweight and flexible, but the aesthetics are not the primary concern.

Textile production is centuries old but companies are finding that applying specialist thread or weaving techniques has to be on a per-project basis as the specialist end market is small. Rather than producing volume products, many are turning their specialist manufacturing skills to projects dedicated to a specific application, and to meet particular performance requirements.

Swift Textile Metallizing has developed a silver-coated glove with EMI shielding (Figure 1). The company’s proprietary conductive fabrics are used in the aerospace, military, medical, and commercial electronics industries.

The glove was commissioned by a customer, working in the electronics industry, who wanted a long glove that stretched and was able to be used repeatedly. It is based on a knitted nylon-lycra blend fabric, coated with silver.

Proprietary coating processes apply the metallised coating to the fabric without losing the fabric’s flexibility. The company says that the process means metallised fabrics are anti-static, anti-microbial, and corrosion resistant.

Shielding and conductivity tests were performed to verify that the fabric met all customer specifications. These gloves are produced in a variety of standard sizes and are used throughout the electronics industry.

Despite the craftsmanship that enables intricate garments, like gloves to be cost-efficiently produced, it will be the medical electronics and fashion industries that will gain the most from e-textiles, according to Grand View Research.

The analyst firm reports that weaving gold and silver in fabric has been used by the garment manufacturing industry for a long time, it is well-established in embroidery work, for example and is expected to become increasingly important in medical electronics and fashion, as well as vertical markets, such as healthcare, wellness and medical fitness over the next few years.

Adding functionality for electrical, electro-optic and electronic operation relies on the use of e-fibres. Woven into light material, they can be used in curtains and bed linen as well as clothing and bandages, says the research company. Used in soft furnishings, e-textiles can emit light, sense heat, coolness, change shape, show changing images, communicate wirelessly, use ambient energy for creating electricity when required as well as diagnose problems.

The specialist nature of manufacture will be a challenge, giving rise to specialist companies, making specialist pieces for specific uses.  The lack of assurances on future volume orders, is hampering growth in the e-textile market, reports the company in E-textiles Market Analysis, Market Size, Application Analysis, Regional Outlook, Competitive Strategies, And Segment Forecasts, 2015 To 2022.

As well as investors’ risk aversion, there are many patents by inventors and universities, which are believed to prevent the market being inviting to newcomers and expanding. “It has equally impacted the product improvement and cost reduction efforts by existing market players,” says the report. “Incorporating electronic equipment on fabrics requires different skills, in-depth knowledge about industry standards, and high investment on new equipment. These factors make the market less favourable for new investors.”

Although North America and Canada adopt new technologies to grow the e-textiles market (ink and graphene, for example), Europe is expected to dominate the e-textiles market, with international development and trade programmes. Asia, China and India in particular are expected to be strong with a low-cost manufacturing sector and with easy access to inexpensive fibres.

Despite the specialist markets, like EMI shielded gloves, it is companies like Nike, Reebok and Adidas that are cited as key e-textile vendors, along with consumer technology companies like Apple and Samsung.

Figure 1: Swift Textile Metalizing lends a hand to electronics manufacturing.