Custom and Functional: New Growth in Electronic Textiles

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Nov 5, 2013

Digital textile printing for customizable garments, décor, and industrial uses has taken the printing industry by storm; and while much of this interest relates to the ability of wide format and direct-to-substrate devices becoming more capable of production runs, there is yet another futuristic application to look forward to: electronic textiles or “smart textiles”.

Figure 1: Lüme Light Up Clothing

The smart textile market can be broken down into four major applications: consumer, healthcare, enterprise, and industrial. Each application can be divided into two areas – non-wearable smart textiles and wearable smart textiles (see examples below). Smart textiles are classified much like they are in digital textile printing by material properties, types, and function.

A great example of a wearable smart textile technology is the Mimo Onesie. Through the use of an electronic sensor built into a washable onesie, which a baby’s activity level, respiration, and body temperature can be tracked. The data is then fed to a turtle-shaped Wi-Fi connector that feeds all of this vital information back to a parent’s mobile device (see Figure 2). Mimo’s technology allows for parents to have confidence that their child is sleeping comfortably. The Mimo Onesie is expected to hit the market in early 2014.

Figure 2: Mimo Onesie and Data Readout

An example of a non-wearable smart textile can be found in architecture and design. Some interior designers are using panels of fabric with electronics woven into them to provide lighting or heat (see Figure 3). Another use for non-wearable electronic textiles can be found in the military. Highly advanced motion sensors or GPS components can be woven into materials so that they can be used to target and track enemy movements. Military applications are still in a research & development phase, and universities like Virginia Tech are involved in this work.

Figure 3: Electronic Fabric for Interior Design

According to a recent article in Business Wire, the firm ‘Research and Markets,’ believes that  the wearable electronics or smart — textiles, glasses, and watches — market was worth over $4 billion USD in 2012 and is still growing. The smart textiles market alone is expected to reach $ 2 billion USD by 2018 with an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 21% from 2013 to 2018.

While the applications of smart textiles are exciting, there is still the question of how this developing market affects the graphic arts industry. There are graphic arts technologies that support the production of smart textiles and could also help those in the graphic arts industry lead the charge into the next stage of development of this market vertical. The first has previously been discussed in another InfoTrends blog, and that is the ability for larger particles, including microelectronics, to be jetted or applied to a substrate. The second is jetting deposition technology that has been presented by the likes of Ceradrop, a company most recently acquired by MGI, which allows for the layering of a jetted material to create a raised surface. These two advancements allow for flexible electronics to be printed on smart textiles.

Smart textiles represent the convergence of printing technologies and the electronics industry. It is through the use of inkjet that we are beginning to see the movement of digital textile printing from ink on fabric to true functional materials that have computer and electronic functionality. It is also an exciting time to witness this merging of these technologies as a consumer. The idea that in the future, we may be able to have access to smart textiles that monitor our health and improve quality of life is amazing and it is the development of functional printing that is helping to lead the charge.

For more information on digitally printed textiles please refer to our report, Transforming Textile Printing.

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