E-textile is a booming market in the electronics sector—and in the textile sector. Being at the crossroads of two industries has problems of its own. Christian Dalsgaard, founder and former CTO of Ohmatex in Denmark, learned that the hard way while developing state-of-the-art wearables for the European Space Agency, among others. He argues for standards in e-textile. Senior Technology Editor Bill Wong chats with Christian about this growing need.
Which problems are shaping e-textile nowadays?
There are two clusters of problems—the first cluster has to do with the central challenges of e-textile. The most important one is unifying something hard with something soft, something rigid with something flexible. Also, you need to make a device as small as possible, while maintaining its performance. And then there’s the challenge to make cabling, connectors and electronics sealing that will survive hostile environments—sweat, washing machines, tumble dryers, to name the most obvious.
The second cluster of problems is about the fact that two supply chains are involved in e-textile. One is concentrated around the traditional textile industry, where there’s a group of companies involved in the production of conductive yarn, sensing fabrics, and confectioning garments. The other is concentrated around the production of electronics and mechanical components, involving robotics and automated processes.
Textile and electronics are coming together in e-textile, but they come from very different backgrounds. Some of the elements include price points that are very different and the manufacturing process for cloth is still labor-intensive.
Moreover, the turnaround time in fashion is short. There needs to be a new collection every three months, whereas the turnaround time in electronics is on average two years. Of course, there are exceptions—certain headphones from 2007 are still hot and being sold. People working in electronics are generally nerds rooted in STEM, while in textile they hate mathematics and science. There’s also a gender factor. In the textile industry, there’s a predominance of women, while in electronics you’ll find mostly men.
The gender aspect influences the industry on many levels, from the people working in it to the solutions consumers are interested in. Women choose clothes for being comfortable, or for expression, while expression is much less of an issue for men, who rather look for functionality in their clothes—to protect themselves from heat or cold. These factors play a minor role in electronics.