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21st June 2017, Cambridge, MA

US opening of US$ 300 million centre for advanced fabrics

Just over a year after its funding award, a new centre for the development and commercialisation of advanced fabrics has officially opened its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and unveiled the first advanced fabric products to be commercialised from its work.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, working to develop and introduce US-made high-tech fabrics that provide services such as health monitoring, communications, and dynamic design.

Marty Ellis of Inman Mills in South Carolina checks a machine manufacturing fabric developed through the AFFOA. © AFFOA

AFFOA’s national headquarters opened on June 19th with an event attended by a number of dignitaries, during which samples of one of the centre’s new products – a programmable backpack made of advanced fabric produced in North and South Carolina – was distributed to attendees.

AFFOA was created last year with over $300 million in funding from the US and state governments and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fibre-based products.

Fabrics as the new software

“The institute seeks to create fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health and change color,” says AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. “In short, AFFOA aims to catalyze the creation of a whole new industry that sees fabrics as the new software.”

Under Fink’s leadership, the independent, non-profit organisation has already created a network of more than 100 partners, including much of the fabric manufacturing base in the US, as well as start-ups and universities spread across 28 states.

“AFFOA’s promise reflects the very best of MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “It’s bold, innovative, and daring and leverages and drives technology to solve complex problems, in service to society. It draws its strength from a rich network of collaborators across governments, universities, and industries. It has been inspiring to watch the partnership’s development this past year, and it will be exciting to witness the new frontiers and opportunities it will open.”

A Moore’s Law for fabrics

While products that attempt to incorporate electronic functions into fabrics have been conceptualized, most of these have involved attaching various types of patches to existing fabrics. The kinds of fabrics and fibres starting to emerge from AFFOA will have these functions embedded within the fibres themselves.

Referring to the principle that describes the very rapid development of computer chip technology over the last few decades, Fink says AFFOA is dedicated to a “Moore’s Law for fibres” that is, ensuring that there will be a recurring growth in fibre technology in this newly developing field.

The JanSport backpack is capable of storing information in its fabric that can then be accessed using an app on a smartphone. The QR code allows the backpack owner to connect the bag to the AFFOA Looks app. Other people with the app can then scan the backpack itself and see what the backpack owner has uploaded. © Jesse Costa/WBUR

A key element in the centre’s approach is to develop the technology infrastructure for advanced, internet-connected fabric products that enable new business models for the fabric industry. With highly functional fabric systems, the ability to offer consumers “fabrics as a service” creates value in the textile industry, moving it from producing goods in a price-competitive market, to practicing recurring revenue models with rapid innovation cycles that are now characteristic of high-margin technology business sectors.

From idea to product

To enable rapid transition from idea to product, a high-tech national product-prototyping ecosystem called the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) has been assembled. The FIN is made up of small, medium, and large manufacturers and academic centres that have production capabilities allocated to AFFOA projects, which rapidly execute prototypes and pilot manufacturing of advanced fabric products, decreasing time to market and accelerating product innovation. The product prototypes being rolled were executed through this network in a matter of weeks.

The new headquarters in Cambridge, which was renovated for this purpose with state and MIT funding, is called a Fabric Discovery Center (FDC). It was designed to support three main drives – a start-up accelerator and incubator that provides space, tools, and guidance to new companies, a section devoted to education offering students hands-on opportunities to explore this cutting-edge field and develop the skills to become part of it, and the world’s first end-to-end prototyping facility, with advanced CAD design and fabrication tools, to help accelerate new advanced fabric ideas from the concept to functional products.

Plans are underway to form additional FDCs in other locations in the country and AFFOA announced the first two last month. One is based at the University of Massachuetts at Lowell and the other at Lincoln Laboratory in collaboration with the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Centre.

The FDCs will function as local chapters of AFFOA in their respective communities. These efforts are expected to lower the barrier to commercialization in the advanced functional fabric space, enabling inventive companies to thrive in the same way that app stores enabled business software-based product innovation.

AFFOA and MIT

MIT’s engagement with AFFOA draws from many strengths, from research to education to entrepreneurship.

“MIT has a range of research and teaching talent that impacts the manufacturing of fibre and textile-based products, from designing the fibre to leading the factories of the future,” says Greg Rutledge, coordinator of MIT’s engagement with AFFOA.

The Lamott du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, Rutledge and his colleagues have been working to develop predictive modelling and design of polymer fibres and meshes, novel processing and characterization, and engineering of textiles for applications ranging from protective garments to water filtration.

Professor Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. © M. Scott Brauer

“Many of our faculty also have longstanding collaborations with partners in defencee and industry on these projects, including with Lincoln Laboratory and the Army’s Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, so MIT membership in AFFOA is an opportunity to strengthen and grow those networks,” Rutledge says.

Ahead of the pack

While new products intended for the consumer market typically require years of work from concept to product, in its first year, AFFOA has already spurred the development of two commercial-ready product platforms.

The “programmable” backpack prototype produced by JanSport is made of a breakthrough fabric developed through AFFOA and manufactured in South Carolina by Inman Mills in collaboration with UniFi Yarns (North Carolina), Burlington Manufacturing Services (North Carolina), and Granitville Specialty Fabrics (South Carolina).

The fabric enables the wearer to programme the pack through a smartphone app called Looks, to associate and share information that is context-dependent. The system can be harnessed to help students better connect on campuses, enable professionals to network effectively at conferences, increase access security in elementary schools, store memories and information, and even enable dynamic advertising and online purchases and commerce.

“This product exemplifies a future where clothing and other fabric products will be seen no longer as commodity products but as a service, similar to the way software is developed and sold,” Fink says. “This approach will make it possible for fabrics to take on a new role in the world, one where we receive high value-added services from fabrics. People often appreciate experiences and services more than goods and the economics follows.”

A second new product platform is a technology dubbed Fabric LiFi, which harnesses the potential of new LED-based lighting systems that are rapidly replacing incandescent and fluorescent lights due to their energy efficiency and longevity. These new lighting systems can be used to broadcast data to any receiver within view, at extremely high bandwidths.

The technology could be used to provide highly accurate tracking and navigation in indoor locations where GPS does not penetrate and where tracking can be crucial, such as guiding patients within a hospital. The product might also help theatre goers or sports fans learn details about the events as they view them or form the basis for active safety clothing for cyclists.

The system could also deliver digital content to users through this lighting link, without affecting the perception of the quality of the light. For example, two people sitting next to each other at a sporting event could receive detailed commentary in real time, in two different languages, or oriented to fans of opposing teams, through optical fiber sensors built into a baseball cap. The same technology could enable soldiers or emergency responders to get data and imagery from a drone hovering overhead.

“These new developments represent a major change in how we view fabrics and how the world is going to interact with fabrics,” Fink says, “and with the introduction of these first two products what had been a vision of a whole new kind of technology is finally actually turning into something tangible.”

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Comments

  • TAPAS BHATTACHARYA 22nd June 2017 6:45AM

    Its really a novel and interesting Project leading to the Development of Smart Fabrics. It further interests me considering that I was involved as a Researcher with a duPont sponsored project on Fabric Hand in the group of Professor Stanley Backer at MIT,Cambridge, Mass, USA.

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