Beyond fashion: How smart fabrics are changing the game across industries

The global smart fabrics market was valued at $1.72 billion in 2017 and is forecasted to hit $4.08 billion by 2023. This represents a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of more than 19 percent over this five-year period.

As smart fabric technology advances, smart textiles and clothes are having a huge impact on multiple industries, ranging from sports to defense. A quick overview of how the technology works makes it easy to see the impact smart fabrics are having.

How do smart fabrics work?

Smart fabrics—also called electronic textiles, e-textiles, smart garments, and intelligent fabrics—have some type of digital component embedded in them. This may be a battery, a light, an electronic chip, or a sensor. The technology is incorporated into the fabric through various methods, such as conductive fibers and multi-layer 3D printing.

The purpose of smart fabrics is to provide added value to the wearer, whether that be for pleasure, performance, or safety. Market growth is fueled by the development of smaller electronic devices and cheaper production of them.

From a high level, smart fabrics can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Aesthetic enjoyment (examples include sneakers that light up and fabrics that change color with body heat)
  • Performance enhancement (examples include smart clothes that can regulate body temperature and textiles that provide protection against such environmental hazards as radiation)

Researchers at MIT were recently able to introduce soft hardware into smart textiles. High-speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices were successfully embedded into fibers that were woven into soft, washable fabrics. This successful inclusion of semiconductors into smart fabrics will open the door to big advances in the functionality smart textiles can deliver.

Four industries benefiting from smart fabric technology

Sports and fitness

Smart textiles are being used by recreational and professional athletes to monitor vital signs during workouts and improve performance. Athletes can track progress and measure whether or not they are making gains. Newer advances in technology are guiding individuals through workouts.

Nadi X smart yoga leggings are tech-enabled yoga pants that have woven-in sensors and haptic (vibration) motors that sense your movement and guide you through a yoga session. The Bluetooth-enabled pants connect to an app, allowing the user to select from a variety of workouts.

The motors emit gentle vibrations that draw your attention to the appropriate areas of the body for a given yoga pose. The pants are machine washable and designed for comfort.

A team at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) is working with smart textile designers to develop a wearable that can capture the heat from our bodies to generate power. Electrodes convert the difference in body temperature as compared to the outside temperature into an electric current that can charge small devices.

This has potential in the medical, entertainment, and fitness markets, but fitness is seen as a primary target. As people exercise, body temperature rises which can be used to create even more energy. This energy can keep fitness trackers charged at all times during a workout.

At the end of 2017, Twinery MAS combined fashion and safety with its new jacket called the Nova. This flexible and lightweight jacket uses an embedded lighting technology to keep the wearer visible from up to 450 feet. The lights can stay charged for up to eight hours.

Medical

The medical smart fabric market is expected to see a CAGR of 9.5 percent by 2027. Growth is fueled by the increased ability to monitor and even treat patients through smart textiles with less interaction required by medical personnel.

The sensors and digital technology embedded in the garments monitor patients’ heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other vital signs. Patients can be continuously monitored, and those that are immobile can be watched remotely.  

Smart fabric company Xenoma is developing smart pajamas that can be worn by medical patients. Embedded sensors detect motion, alerting staff when a patient is on the move. The sensors are able to monitor the patient and maintain conductivity with the skin without the use of gels or liquids, and they can withstand more than 100 washes.

Sensewear is a smart clothing collection designed for people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Individuals who suffer from SPD have trouble processing certain stimuli, such as light or touch.

A smart shirt in the collection gathers information on heart rate and movement. The data is translated by an app that identifies when a certain stress level is reached.

Other garments in the collection can then be activated to soothe the wearer. An example is a shirt that inflates to provide deep touch pressure therapy through a “hug.” The ultimate goal is to further develop the collection so it looks “cool” and is not obvious therapy-based clothing.

Military and emergency personnel

Smart textiles are being used by the military to protect, monitor, and communicate with soldiers. Smart garments can protect military personnel from extreme heat and other harsh conditions. Vital signs can be remotely monitored, alerting higher ranking officers when a soldier is in distress.

New smart fabrics called SOFT (Self-Organized Framework on Textiles) have the ability to detect, capture, pre-concentrate, and filter gases. Sensors in protective suits can alert the individual to gas detection in real-time. Users can also be alerted immediately of any defects in the suit or if the gas is penetrating the gear. This new smart fabric can also detect toxic chemicals.

This has great potential uses for the military, emergency personnel, and even factory workers by providing active protection.

BAE Systems developed Broadsword Spine, a vest that can charge equipment. Eight devices can be plugged into the vest, while others can be charged wirelessly through electrically conductive yarn.

The energy level is monitored through an app. Military personnel, emergency responders, and law enforcement can all benefit from this technology.

Communications and social media

Electronic textiles are opening new doors for social media, creating new ways for people to interact with each other and share information.

Google partnered with Levi Strauss to produce a smart jacket that uses Google’s Project Jacquard smart technology. The jacket uses Bluetooth and conductive thread to communicate with an associated smartphone app. Users can change their music selections and perform other commands with programmable taps of the fabric.

Jansport developed a backpack made from programmable smart fabric that turns it into a vehicle for social media. Users can share songs, videos, Facebook pages, and website links with people nearby.

The exchange occurs through an app, and all someone has to do is hold their smartphone near the backpack. The technology behind it is similar to a QR code, but it is blended into the backpack design. Each backpack has a unique design, which allows it to be identified by the app.

It is an exciting time for smart fabric technologies, with applications in just about every industry imaginable. We are currently working with clients on a number of projects similar to those described here and would love to help your business design and develop new applications for smart fabrics.