As the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow at an unparalleled rate, undoubtedly, wearable electronics will play a key role in our interconnectedness to the world around us. These wearable electronics are made possible by electronic textiles, or e-textiles, which are fabrics that have digital components such as batteries and lights, small computers, and electronics embedded into them.
While many e-textile applications have been seen on runways with ball gowns laced with glittering LED lights, e-textiles have a convenient application into industries and everyday streetwear. The following is a discussion of the current state of the e-textile sector, as well as the present, primary applications of these wearable electronic threads.
Wearable tech, including smartwatches or heart rate monitors, is nothing new. E-textiles, however, take this tech to the next level with an industry that creates a fabric that can be turned into wearable garments that sit on and move with the human body.
These garments are meant to look and feel like their ordinary counterparts. They’re made with traditional fibers, such as cotton, polyester, or wool, but are woven with conductive fibers and electronic elements, including sensors, micro-controllers, fiber optics, and wearable antennas.
These garments are usually created using a typical sewing machine that embroiders conductive thread into the fabric in a specific pattern controlled by a computer program. This conductive thread is generally made from metallic fibers from materials such as silver, nickel, carbon, copper, aluminum, and stainless steel.
The global search and advisory firm, Gartner, predicts that smart clothing will become one of the fastest-growing industries in the world and that shipments of e-textiles will increase from 4.12 million in 2017 to 19.91 million by 2022.
An Overview Of The e-Textile Industry
As the population around the world experiences aging and declining populations, the need and demand for more efficient technologies for industries like construction, education, and of course, healthcare have been growing dramatically. Whether it’s through the use of robotic solutions in healthcare, increased efficiencies, or new, untested solutions, technology is at the forefront of these advancements.
One technology that has unique applications and has been growing in use for years is the implementation of smart textiles within the healthcare industry, as they pertain to clothing, bed linens and mattresses, and stockings.
Bed Linens And Mattresses
There are several ways e-textiles can be integrated into the bed linens and mattresses within healthcare facilities. Most commonly, bedsheets and cushions can be outfitted with pressure sensors to manage and prevent bedsores. Moisture sensors can also be integrated to map out incontinence or any other patient sensitivities.
While the integration of e-textiles within medical clothing is still in its infancy, several promising ideas have emerged. One of which is a bioimpedance vest that measures water accumulation in the lungs to indicate heart conditions, which can be worn at home for trend analysis before hospitalization, saving time and money. Other details a chest belt that monitors lung performance by taking topographic photos of the wearer’s lungs.
Other ideas include A light therapy blanket for babies with jaundice allowing them to be removed from cradle light therapies and held by parents or loved ones instead. And a shirt that is connected to an individual’s phone and records physiological functions of their body and sends reports to their physician for further analysis.
Stockings And Socks
Similarly, there has been an emergence of ideas for medical stockings and socks, including A washable stocking to measure and monitor changes in leg volume with patients suffering from edema (fluid accumulation or swelling) in the lower limbs. Future uses of the stocking could be to monitor congestive heart failure or pre-eclampsia, which happens during pregnancy and involves hypertension, edema, and protein in the urine.
Ultimately, the integration and automation of smart sensor systems within e-textiles for industries like healthcare can help in the monitoring and communicating of a patient’s condition by detecting, acquiring, and transmitting physiological signals. While the systems are still new, there is potential for automation and AI to be used together to create a fully sustained system.
The Use Of e-textiles In The Military
The growing need and demand for performance-enhancing and protective garments for use within military applications have facilitated the rapid introduction, design, and R&D of e-textiles into this market. Amongst the many army applications of e-textiles include: health and physiological monitoring, wired and wireless communication, enhanced mobility, and the reduction of logistic burdens.
More specifically, e-textiles are being integrated with adaptive insulation properties to enhance the heating properties within clothing, sleeping bags, and blankets to mitigate heat loss. Additionally, they have been incorporated into camouflage textiles that can protect personnel from visual and infrared light, and heat.
E-textiles can also be used in energy harvesting and act as wearable power supplies. Perhaps most impressive is the development of e-textiles that can help wearers sense their environmental conditions, and detect biological and chemical threats.
Scientists from Dartmouth University are currently developing smart fabrics that can detect the presence of hazardous gases, and protect the wearer from their effects. One such example is the SOFT (Self-Organized Framework on Textiles) e-textile, which uses metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) to improve detection and protection from noxious gases.
It’s envisioned that this material would be worn in conjunction with an Haz-Mat suit. A few other R&D projects currently in the works include an invisible cloak, which scientists at the University of Tokyo are in the midst of developing. This cloak would be made from nanoparticles that reflect light, making the wearer appear invisible.
There would also be a camera on the torso that records whatever happens behind the wearer, projects it to the front of the cloak, further creating the illusion that the wearer is invisible. The spine vest is another example of the integration of e-textiles into military use.
This vest would use e-textiles to wirelessly charge military equipment, and monitor this energy remotely using a smartphone app. Up to eight devices can be charged simultaneously, and the vest’s electrically conductive fibers can be used to charge other devices wirelessly.
As the e-textiles market continues to expand and integrated electronics systems permeate the mainstream fashion industry, fashion houses and manufacturers alike will require robust teams of electronics technicians. If you’re interested in becoming a part of this exciting and burgeoning field and completing an electronic technician certificate, check out George Brown College’s Electronics Technician Program.
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