What Are E-Textiles?

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Though not yet as common as smartwatches for fitness trackers, “smart” or E-textiles now represent one of the fastest-growing segments of wearable IoT devices. The global smart textiles market is expected to reach a valuation of $6.6 billion USD by 2026, with recent advances in miniaturization of electronic components opening up considerable growth opportunities for wearable applications.

As interest in this hyper-wearable technology grows, it could be useful to better understand the function and potential of E-textiles. So let’s take a closer look at how it all comes together.

What are E-Textiles?

Smart textile technology is still in its early days, so definitions may vary slightly. Most sources agree that the term “smart textiles” refers to wearable IoT devices that look and feel like everyday clothing but incorporate miniature electronics to sense and even potentially respond to environmental stimuli.

These fabrics can be broken down into two categories: those with electronics attached to them, and those with IoT devices actually woven in. More recently, Cientifica Research has categorized e-textiles by the generation of their creation.

  • The first generation of smart textiles, sometimes dubbed ‘passive,’ use IoT sensors attached to fabrics to track or adapt based on environmental changes.
  • Second generation E-textiles, or ‘active’ textiles, embed sensors and actuators into the fabric in order to detect and respond to elements of their environment.
  • In Third Generation E-textiles, dubbed ‘ultra smart’ or ‘sophisticated,’ the garment itself is the sensor. These items involve built-in microcomputers that review, respond to, and (potentially) anticipate disparate data types.

Key to this functionality are electrically conductive fibers, threads, and fabrics that can be integrated with more common clothing materials to form garments that can be worn comfortably, cleaned easily, and still perform their designated purpose. 

Continued developments into conductive technologies, notably conductive inks, are allowing for lower profile integration of devices like actuators, accelerometers, and the like, to create more comfortable and seamless attire.

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What can E-Textiles do?

The applications of E-textiles are vast, though forecasts suggest that the areas with the greatest interest in the technology may be healthcare, occupational safety and athletics.

  • As the garments created with E-textiles are designed to be just as comfortable as regular clothes, they are a natural fit for health monitoring applications. Removing the discomfort of obtrusive wearables that monitor heart rate or blood pressure, will allow for round-the-clock observation. This can help identify potential medical emergencies before they occur, or identify triggering events within a day to better address a patient’s routines.
  • Security in the workplace is another prominent application for E-textiles, with particularly dangerous occupations providing the most investment. Health monitoring, GPS and motion trackers allow for advanced monitoring of these employees, while devices for improved insulation and ballistics protection are highly sought after by law enforcement and military organizations.
  • Athletics brands are also looking into smart fabrics for a wealth of applications. Accelerometers, health monitors and other sensors have been utilized to create everything from garments that can help assess and coach on running form, to fabrics that can improve breath control, to smart insoles that can help avoid long term ankle strain and injuries.

This only scratches the surface of what is possible with smart fabrics, as everyone from car manufacturers to Antarctic researchers are embracing E-textiles as possible solutions to the enduring challenges they face.

The Future of E-Textiles

The continued miniaturization of electronics and the ongoing evolution of manufacturing processes means that the potential of E-textiles will only continue to grow. 

The report mentioned at the beginning of this piece claims that the biggest driver of innovation will be related to energy harvesting technologies that may one day allow users to, for example. charge their smartphones while they walk. Speculation also points toward the APAC region as the primary investor in this technology given both the region’s expanding healthcare system and its considerable manufacturing prowess. 

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