Technology

Can e-Textiles Take the Next Step Towards the Mass Market?

Although e-textile wearables have been around for over a decade, the market has not reached the mass-scale tipping point yet. Despite the initial excitement over wearables like Apple Watch, it remains a long way behind the adoption rates of other wearables. However, with annual apparel volumes estimated at over 50 billion units and with the acceptance of body-worn technology increasing, e-textiles are now being viewed by the technology industry as a key opportunity for future growth.

Also known as smart fabrics, e-textiles are the fabrics that has electronics and digital components embedded in them. These are the fabrics that can sense stimuli from environment and adapt and react to those stimuli in a predetermined manner. Smart fabrics can incorporate sensors, communication and processing for applications in various sectors, such as consumer products and health monitoring.

Over the past 20 years, e-textiles have progressed from an academic curiosity to an important technology platform generating revenue for companies globally. In particular, the industry saw strong growth for several years up to 2015, with successful launches of many new products from a series of players. IDTechEx Research’s most recent report, E-Textiles 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets, Players, found that the market has grown to around US$100m in annual wholesale revenue from e-textile products today.

The future of high-tech fabrics

Before fashion, humans wore clothes to protect themselves from natural elements, such as freezing winter and the hot sun. Even with fashion, branding, and commercialism thousands of years later, it seems nothing much has changed. Clothes are still being designed to keep us drier, warmer, cooler, or safer; a far cry from what most of us would consider smart, tech-infused clothing.

With the advent of the smartphone however, its vast connectivity and eventual ubiquity, meant that suddenly, everyone has a handheld computer that could connect to, monitor, and control other things. It changed the way companies thought about smart products. Sports shoes with pedometers built in were suddenly possible. T-shirts could monitor our heartbeat. Glasses could be connected online to show wearer the shortest route to the nearest gas station. Now, in 2017, we seem to be at the next level of e-textile wearables. Nanotechnology has made fibers smarter. Conductive yarns mean the fabrics that we wear and sit and sleep in can suddenly communicate with our devices.

One spectacular example is the collaboration between Google and Levi’s. Dubbed Project Jacquard, the two Bay area companies are pairing up to produce fabrics that can conduct electricity, with the ultimate goal of enabling touch and gesture interactivity.

By integrating Jacquard technology into The Levi’s® Commuter™ Trucker Jacket, designed specifically for urban bike commuters, it allows wearers to control their mobile experience and connect to a variety of services, such as music or maps, directly from the jacket. This is especially useful when it might be difficult to use the smartphone, like when you are riding on your bike. Imagine answering a phonecall by tapping the sleeve of your jacket. The possibilities are endless.

Not just for personal use

Recently, wearable devices are increasingly being implemented in warehouse operations. Wearable devices are beneficial as they are connected to an internet connection and allow workers to complete tasks on a hands-free device. One example is the Crown QuickPick™ Remote Order Picking Technology, which utilises a special glove that remotely controls the movement of the pallet truck and is currently being rolled out throughout the Southeast Asia region.

The system uses task-automating technologies to simplify workflow and optimise the order picking process, thereby increasing productivity and reducing operator fatigue. The report forecasts that worldwide shipments for enterprise and industrial wearables will increase from 2.3 million units in 2015 to 66.4 million units annually by 2021, a more than 30-fold increase in just six years. Over that period, a cumulative total of 171.9 million wearables are projected to be shipped for use in enterprise and industrial environments.

While these devices in the supply chain are mostly present in pick and pack services, there is a growing interest in this new technology, with more areas in the supply chain seeing the potential of these wearable devices. This new technology assists in providing improved and enhanced logistics services.

Mixing AR with wearable technology

Augmented reality (AR) picking using wearable technology combines the very best of vision- and voice-guided picking to produce a faster, hands-free solution for industrial environments. Augmented reality picking uses smart glasses to merge virtual images and information with an operator’s surrounding environment. The operator wears the glasses, follows the commands given, and scans product barcodes all within the glasses’ display. The combination of real-world and virtual information provides speed and accuracy beyond previous warehouse picking technologies. DHL had concluded a pilot project that tested smart glasses and augmented reality systems in a warehouse in the Netherlands; the result was a 25 per cent efficiency increase during the picking process.

Communication in the warehouse can also be improved through smart glasses or voice command devices. Step-bystep manufacturing instructions can be transmitted visually through smart glasses, while two-way audio headsets can give users real-time notifications pertinent to their activities on the floor. Productivity increases from wearable voice command tools can increase warehouse efficiencies up to 30 per cent, according to vendors of the technology. Other wearables can monitor health and stress levels of employees through fitness trackers, while GPS and beacon technology can easily locate employees and prevent them from entering a dangerous zone, such as machine cages and boilers.

Looking at security concerns

As wearables gain a foothold in manufacturing, security concerns will have to be addressed. The same security concerns inherent in other digital applications apply, including phishing, malware attacks, and network overloads. Just like your laptop, your smart glass could get a software virus. Wearables collect specific data for manufacturing use, but they never turn off, collecting extraneous data that could be harmful if used incorrectly. Privacy is also a concern because wearables can be used to collect data on personal habits, behaviours, and the health of employees.

Making this data secure, and abiding by government standards, is of paramount concern if wearables are to become widespread. Addressing these includes a variety of tactics, starting with secure software and hardware development, and by creating proprietary tools that cannot easily be infiltrated.

Today, many of the most prominent e-textile brands remain relatively young, driven either by recent start-ups, spin-outs from larger companies lower in the value chain, or generally companies outside of the mass-market consumer sector in either textiles or electronics. This is the most significant factor which is poised to change in the coming years. The early hype following the early commercial success may be starting to fade, but behind the scenes growing manufacturing know-how and efficiency means that a mass-market order for e-textiles will soon be possible.

Previous ArticleNext Article