Smart Textiles – attractive niche market opportunities based on a long research history
Opinion Article by Lutz Walter, Secretary General of the European Technology Platform for the Future of Textiles and Clothing
While no 100% accepted definition exists, smart textiles are most commonly understood as textile fibre based materials or products with integrated electronic components or devices providing a smart functionality which textile materials or products without such components could not realise.
Smart functionalities such as heat absorption or release, physical deformation, colour change or controlled substance release among many others can also be achieved by non-electronic means such as nanomaterials, microcapsules, functional coatings etc. But these cases are more broadly referred to as functional or multifunctional textile materials. Other commonly used terms are flexible electronics or smart wearables. In these cases the overlap with smart textiles is again only partial, because these materials or products can also be made of non-textile materials such as films, paper, plastics, rubber, leather etc. And the case of wearables by definition excludes many non-wearable smart textile applications such as smart interiors or structural parts of buildings, cars, airplanes, tents, greenhouses and manymore.
The term smart textiles started to emerge in the 1990es when the microelectronics and ICT markets experienced a rapid growth phase spurred by the advent of the Internet, connected desktop computing and mobile phones. First product prototypes included the Levis-Philips phone jacket or the first sports shirt with integrated heartrate measurement device by Clothing+ in Finland. Apart from communication, entertainment and sports also the health market saw their first versions of wearable textile or clothing integrated monitoring devices such as the Vivo-shirt by Vicometrics in the US or some prototypes produced the large EU-funded project MyHeart, led by Philips. Another testing ground for smart textile products were the defence and civil personal protection markets, mostly driven by public funding led by institutions such as the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center.
However despite great hope and bold announcements (the Levis-Philips joint venture’s mission goal was “Philips technology in every shirt and skirt”), commercial success was very difficult to come by and many ground-breaking ideas were quietly abandoned in the post IT-bubble years in the early 2000’s.
Many of the fundamental problems that botched the early smart textile dreams remain headaches until today. These include
- the complexity of the products for both manufacturers and end users,
- limited technical capacities and fragility of textile-based electronics,
- difficult connectivity between textile and (non-textile) electronic parts,
- lack of large-scale production of smart textile materials and components and related too high costs for mass-market adoption,
- lack of automated assembly technologies creating cost and quality issues,
- limited washability,
- lack of standards, testing and certification often driven by the fundamental difficulty of classifying the end product as either textile/clothing product or electronic device.
While large industry, end users and investors lost their appetite to venture much further into prototyping, production and marketing at large scale, researchers and technology developers soldiered on, mostly supported by public grants such as those of the European Union’s research and innovation framework programmes. In 2008 the Smart Fabrics and Intelligent Textiles cluster was formed bringing together almost 10 EU-funded smart textiles research projects. Up to that point Europe, through EU and national public funding and the US, mostly through defence-related projects, dominated the global smart textiles innovation landscape.
Leading European smart textiles research players include textile departments at leading Technical Universities such as RWTH Aachen and TU Dresden in Germany, Ghent University in Belgium, ENSAIT Lille in France, the University of Boras in Sweden or the University of Manchester in the UK as well as applied textile and electronics research centres such as DITF, TITV and Fraunhofer IZM in Germany, CEA-LETI and IFTH in France, CSEM in Switzerland, Centexbel in Belgium, EURECAT and AITEX in Spain, CITEVE and CeNTI in Portugal.
Especially the applied research centres, often embedded in regional textile and clothing industry clusters, kept working with local companies to find out what could work even if initially at small scale. A few of many such examples include the illuminating home textiles introduced by Ettlin in Germany in collaboration with DITF, a smart fire fighter uniform tested by Viking in Denmark working with smart textile pioneer Ohmatex, the HugShirt a wearable haptic telecommunication garment designed by CuteCircuit in the UK or conductive yarns being commercialised by imbut, a spin-off of the TITV research centre in Germany.
A particularly interesting project, entitled Smart@Fire started in 2012. In this project, national or regional public procurers of fire fighter equipment from 6 European countries (BE, DE, FR, HU, NL, UK) joined forces to define precise end user requirements leading to technical and cost specifications for a large pre-commercial procurement order of fully functional smart fire fighter suits. After several development and selection rounds with many applicants, 2 winning solutions were extensively user tested at the training centre of the fire fighters of the Marseille region in France in 2015.
Despite many such promising developments, no real broad commercial breakthrough for smart textiles happened in those years. Still national and European research funds kept supporting leading edge applied research. Flagships projects of this period included Pasta, PowerWeave or 1DNeon pushing smart electronic or optical functions deeper into the core of textile materials such as fibres and filaments or enabling manufacturing of such materials in more conventional textile processes such as weaving, knitting, embroidery or printing. Also many industry innovators from the textile, textile technology and microelectronics sectors kept developing solutions with broader market adoption potential witnessed through many smart textile exhibits at leading sectoral trade fairs such as Techtextil, ITMA or JEC between 2015 and 2019.
Another boost came from the introduction of smart watches, fitness trackers and other smart wearables by consumer electronics companies such as Apple, Samsung or Fitbit. This was combined with the possibility to capture more reliable and relevant data, to transfer them to cloud-based databases, analyse them through powerful algorithms and provide useful insights back to users or other entities that find value in individual or collective user information.
Digital start-up’s from Silicon Valley and around the globe rushed to develop algorithms, apps and service-based business models that tried to exploit this opportunity in countless consumer and professional market niches across sports, entertainment, gaming, healthcare, defence, personal protection or workplace safety and efficiency. By far not all of these concepts rely on smart textiles, but textile layers that nicely conform to the human body, can cover areas of any size and shape and are easy to use and comfortable to wear remain an integration vehicle of choice for many of these innovations.
As we stand today, we can say that all the basic technology building blocks exist to realise fully functional smarttextile products that are attractive and valuable for end users across many different end markets. However, the major bottleneck preventing a much broader adoption of smart textile products in larger markets are reliability and affordability. These twin problems can only be tackled through a highly efficient, scalable industrial manufacturing value chain for smart textile materials, components and end products.
This very bottleneck is being attackedsince 2019 by the EU accelerator funding programme SmartX*, led by the European Textile Technology Platform together with textile and IoT innovation clusters from 7 EU countries. Through 3 public funding calls around 50 SMEs and start-up’s from across Europe will receive accelerator funding to develop their smart textile innovations at high technology readiness level towards market launch. At the same time they must ensure robust manufacturing processes to be able to scale production, ensure quality and reliability and achieve unit economics that make their products affordable for fast and broad market adoption. The first 2 funding cohorts involving 37 companies from 11 European countries are already underway and the 3rd and final cohort is expected to launch in the Spring of 2021.
At the same time SmartX built a European wide smart textile innovation community with over 600 registered users which is accessible via www.smartx-europe.eu where also a free newsletter subscription is available. Regular community webinars are being organised. In late 2021 a series of focussed workshops and a hackathon are planned. And a final conference in the Spring of 2022 will present all project results to the public.
Based on a continuous flow of technological advances in textiles, IoT, software and AI, the emergence of a complete manufacturing value chain and entrepreneurial efforts of established industry innovators and start-ups, the smart textiles market is expected to growth into a sizeable opportunity, estimated by EURATEX to reach a value of € 1.5 billion in 2025. While still incredibly small compared to the total EU market value of textile and clothing products which exceeds € 400 billion annually, it is expected to grow fast from its low base and will likely surprise many observers.
* SmartX has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 824825.