In short, each industry has its own standards and accepted solutions, embedded in very diverse industrial history and cultures. Which problems in e-textile are suffering most from the lack of standardization?
Imagine a world of mobile phones without USB or Bluetooth standards. A supplier would need to develop headsets, hands-free car kits, loudspeakers, and many other accessories—each device individually designed for a specific brand. This is the situation e-textile is in, which we need to get out of as fast as possible.
First, let’s discuss connectors. They need to be soft and easy to integrate, but most of them are clumsy, rigid, and hard, especially in the military. Connectors in the consumer market, such as USB and USB-C, are much more consumer-friendly because they’re small and widely used. However, they’re fragile when applied to cloth, and tend to gather dirt and washing powder when being washed.
We struggled with the connector in the PLACE-it project—a project Ohmatex was involved in with, among others, Philips. For this project, we developed a connector for light-emitting textiles used in phototherapy medical devices for treating babies with jaundice, or people with skin disease. To properly make the connector, we had to develop it from scratch. It was a beautifully thin and flexible interconnect that we unfortunately couldn’t afford to upscale because there was no standard we could apply to the thin design.
Another problem is wiring for both power and data transfer, which needs to be flexible and must be sewn or glued into seams. There are no bus standards, textile cables, or washable interconnects that can be used straight out of the box. You need to combine a mix of wires, textile yarns, and elastic weaving methods with custom, specific connectors. And you need to solve the strain relief to prevent the wires from breaking quickly. Finally, you need shielded cables to isolate radiation and radio interference.
Making wearable processing units are a nightmare, too. A skiing jacket with heating elements, for example, needs a controlling unit with an on/off switch, an LED panel, and controls for power level, temperature levels etc. The same goes for ECG shirts, where the interface controls are very similar. If you were building a computer, you would buy, for instance, a standard network board, a graphic card from Asus or G-force—components that are plug-and-play.