How many washes will it take to commoditize e-textiles?

January 11, 2016 //By Julien Happich
How many washes will it take to commoditize e-textiles?
According to IDTechEx's most recent work on smart clothing and e-textiles (integrating electrically or electronically active fibres), the market for pure e-textiles was estimated to be worth USD100m in 2015 and could grow to reach over USD 3bn within the next ten year.

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.

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