How many washes will it take to commoditize e-textiles?
So far, much of the attention for e-textiles focuses around products in the ‘Sports & Fitness’ sector and notably compression wear in the form of a ‘Smart Shirt’ or otherwise. But as the market research firm reports in its "E-Textiles 2016-2026" analysis, there is significant activity across verticals including military, medical & healthcare, or workwear.
Talking to eeNews Europe, Technology Analyst at IDTechEx and author of the new report, James Hayward hinted that this year would be the year of standardization (on performance of the e-textiles, their washability, stretchability while remaining functional).
"The push towards a standard will be big this year" he said, commenting that while several sensor module manufacturers had already showcased prototyped to promote their hardware into apparel-based fitness tracking solutions, no socket or connectivity standard had really emerged so far, the main barrier to adoption remaining the variability of e-textiles and their durability, calling for real standards on performance and reliability before the whole apparel industry would commit to integrating new lines in their portfolio.
Designing new sockets and encapsulated sensor modules to plug them in is not the problem, according to Hayward, now electronic suppliers are waiting for their e-textile partners to figure out what standards they want to promote to seduce the apparel industry as a whole.
Although some of the big players have successfully produced hundreds of thousands of units of sportswear integrating e-textile and electronics vertically, the volumes are nowhere near what the apparel industry is accustomed to when adopting new textiles.
Wearables are still considered a niche within fitness and sports apparel, and to be more broadly accepted, they should not only be seen as useful and fashionable, but also integrate seamlessly within textiles and clothing. Which makes washability and durability big issues.
Beyond adopting and manufacturing the e-textile, the discussions in the apparel industry are about labelling for e-textiles, and what sort of standard should be adopted to avoid confusion among consumers. Is 50 washes at 90ºC enough, or should they advertise more wash cycles at 30ºC instead?
Nevertheless, Hayward highlights that many large apparel brands like Adidas, UnderArmour and Nike and others in the value chain have had significant impact towards the acceptance of e-textiles. Materials companies like DuPont, Nagase/EMS, Hitachi Chemical and others now offer specialised electronic materials for apparel.
Electronics manufacturing services giants like Flex and Jabil have invested heavily, the latter having acquired leading integrator Clothing+ in 2015.
There is also a wave of interest from Asia, where textiles giants from India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and China are now entering the market with large ambitions and deep pockets. The value chain is assembling and volume production will soon be possible for a variety of diverse products.
Whilst the focus around ‘Smart Shirt’ biometric products has been undeniable, the breadth of applications includes tracking specific physiological conditions (beyond heart and respiration rate), to the introduction of heaters, haptics, or other actuators for rehabilitation or comfort, to the optimisation of data and power wiring within military apparel, to the integration of lighting or other visual features in apparel and home textiles alike.
Percentage of e-textile players using each material type, derived from IDTechEx’s survey of over 80 suppliers and manufacturers in the space. Source: IDTechEx Research report "E-Textiles 2016-2026".
The report describes the entire e-textile ecosystem, starting from the bottom up with detailed study of the material options and suppliers. At the component level, the report describes major players and techniques for all of the main options including: motion, touch, pressure, and electrical sensors, heating/cooling, lighting, communication and connectors.
Examples of new technologies which remain in research at the moment, but will reach maturing in the coming years are also described including e-fibres (RFID, sensing and more); new materials like graphene, nanotubes and alike; energy harvesting including photovoltaic, piezoelectric and triboelectric options; energy storage in batteries and supercapacitors, and even logic and memory.
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