source: EE Times article
E-Textiles Weave Complex Tale, Garment, chip supply chains out of synch
Jessica Lipsky, 11/18/2015
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – While wearables present innumerable opportunities for fashion designers, the supply chain isn’t up to speed, according to a panel of wearable technology and fashion experts.
“The biggest pet peeve I’ve experienced is there are two very, very diverse supply chains: the fashion supply chain and the manufacture of electronics, and nowhere do they merge,” Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Professor Michael Reidbord said at the IDTechEx Wearable USA conference here. “You have to engage the creative element way, way early in the supply chain.”
Until products such as the Apple Watch and Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch emerged, most wearables haven’t been very fashionable. While organizations such as London’s Fashion Innovation Agency aim to bridge the gap between designers and technologists, several hurdles remain before technically complex garments will hang in closets.
“When you think of the transition from fabric to the garment, you have skill sets that don’t exist in contract manufacturing that will be needed,” said the president of Propel LLC, a company that develops textile related technologies for the U.S. military and firefighters. “Electrical engineers see making clothing as simple, but it’s quite complicated.”
There are very few examples of commercially successful electronic fabrics, due to issues with the textiles, conductive threads, and ways of connecting them to electronic equipment. The wearables market is several years from realizing a successful manufacturing and commercial market, said King.
Existing e-textiles often lack the strength to withstand industrial processes or regular washing. Silver conductive threads are particularly susceptible to shredding.
Conductive threads have largely been used in the DIY space, an audience member noted, and e-textiles seem to only be in use in fitness or compression-type clothing. Copper and stainless steel are among the materials under experimentation, but “we’re years away,” according to the FIT professor.
“The current platform of conductive yarns and fibers cause some production problems…it hasn’t been commercialized, probably, because this technology is part of Department of Defense-funded companies,” King said. “If companies can make a viable yarn out of one of the conductive polymers that have been developed, that will be a game changer.”
However, advances in semiconductor technology will profoundly affect wearable fashion. Intel’s button-sized Curie module and partnership with luxury glasses brand house Luxottica, for example, bodes well for the future of fashionable wearables.
“There’s a high degree of integration now that you have a very, very small chip so you can get Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and even cellular connectivity on a single chip,” said Marc Naddell, vice president of ecosystems at MediaTek. “With that level of integration, you have a reduced cost and size, which are all very important for any wearable product,” he said.
Google unveiled a smart textile program in conjunction with Levi’s Jeans called Project Jacquard earlier this year, with hopes of solving the issue of mass manufacturing of conductive fabrics that could connect to inexpensive microcontrollers. Google has been quiet on the matter since its developer conference, but Reidbord suggested that project was tossed away like last season’s garments.
The emerging smart textile industry doesn’t need Google, panelists agreed. Innovation will come from smaller companies who can more directly engage with consumers.
“Smaller companies have freedom to act and innovate, and don’t have that corporate quarterly earnings cycle,” Naddell said. “The funding has to come usually from big companies because there’s a lot of risk involved with launching products. That’s perhaps where weakness is on the supply side.”
Naddell, King, and Reidbord expect e-textiles to have broad applications in healthcare and monitoring. FIT’s Reidbord envisioned an application where smart clothing could monitor an elderly parent for falls or immobility.
“I haven’t seen anything in the last six months that has really set me on fire,” King said of smart textile programs. She also pointed to research at American universities and European institutes as promising.