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Cath Rogan

Expert Opinion

24th April 2009, Rome

Smart Fabrics 2009 - Conference Review

Cath Rogan reports from Rome

RomeCath RoganIntertech Pira’s excellent annual Smart Fabrics conference is now in its 5th year and this year (March 10th-12th 2009, Rome) welcomed over 150 delegates to an agenda packed with practical advice, inspirational ideas and of course, a handful of spectacular but occasionally entirely baffling scientific data charts.

Stacey Burr, CEO of Textronics Inc. opened the conference with a highly motivating keynote speech outlining how the E-textiles small business sector is “growing up” in what has suddenly become a far more challenging business climate due to the global financial crisis.

Sharing some of the experiences and lessons learned by Textronics as it developed from a Dupont spin-off into a global market leader, recently acquired by Adidas, Stacey offered practical advice and key pointers to survive and thrive during the current challenging business environment.

Her presentation charted evolution to date of the E-textiles sector; from a flurry of research and patent applications from the late 1990s, to the start-ups, new supply chains and commercial products appearing during the last five years.   Looking forward to 2010 and beyond, Stacey’s vision of the sector’s emergence as an established business sector foresees the next phase of evolution as a period of collaboration, consolidation and partnering, accompanying further innovations and market growth.

With advice on finance options and how to “hang in there” for the next two or three years as the sector weathers the global financial storm, delegates were encouraged to make the most of the networking opportunities offered by the conference.  Indeed, the delegate list covered a wide range of potential collaborators from the small businesses, entrepreneurs and university spin-offs that make up the majority of this emerging Industry sector to global brands and research organisations looking for the next big idea to invest in.

Three separate breakout sessions following the lunch break each day meant that the choice of sessions to join was diverse and generally the only disappointment was where, inevitably, some schedule clashes forced difficult choices.

On the commercial side, it was interesting to note that a number of the companies who have “survived and thrived” during the past few years have also, in many cases, adapted their business models as the sector has evolved and competition has emerged. 

Wearable technology solutions

Several businesses, including Interactive Wear, Smartlife, Ohmatex, QIO Systems (a spin-off of Peratech/Softswitch), Fibretronic and Textronics, along with research institution TITV Greiz, are providing wearable technology “solutions”;  a combination of commercially available e-textile parts and sector expertise to help industry access and create bespoke products to suit their needs.

Clothing+In place of or alongside their sales of existing products, these materials provide potential for companies to create bespoke e-textile products with a ready-made supply chain and the ability to integrate readily into existing production processes. 

TextronicsIntegration with current production technology was described by Matthias Hartmann of Puma as one of their key criteria for selection of smart technologies, but, as Aksell Reho of Clothing+ highlighted, integration of e-textiles often includes modern technologies such as laser cutting, ultrasonic welding and lamination technologies, which are less widely available. 

Steve Leftly of Fibretronic believes they key to mass market opportunities lies in making wearable technology easy to integrate for garment manufacturers, bundling technology systems that can be installed using existing processes and purchased in the same way as any other trim item (eg zips, badges) and in keeping the component cost to garment cost ratio low, with a target $15 cost of “adding in” wearable electronics to allow the garments into mainstream ranges alongside fashion garments.  Furthermore, by partnering with an expert consumer electronics company, his product range aims to make wearable technology multi-functional, easy to use, and easy to customise by consumers.

The DIY element of using such “toolkit” approaches to wearable technology was a theme discussed by Despina Papadopolous of Studio 50:50 and Mika Satomi of the University of Art & design, Austria who both also supported the concept of technology sharing in an “open-source” format to allow open collaborative development for the benefit of all.  Despina appealed to conference attendees to ensure that Design should be a considered from the outset to be a key element of any development and no longer be treated as an afterthought to overcoming technical challenges.

These opinions have certainly been embraced by NYX, the team behind flexible display garments in 2002 and, more recently, supported by a NASA Small business Innovation research grant, the developers of an ambitious multifunctional wearable health monitoring system.  Their novel approach has created an exciting new concept garment and significantly raised the bar in terms of garment design.

Move to true integration

SmartLife TechnologySeveral presenters made reference to the growing need for advancement of wearable technology from “hybrid” garments (where textile based “wiring harnesses” are added to garments), to true integration of electronics into textiles.  The proliferation of textile based sensors is now progressing further in some areas into more fully integrated systems, as demonstrated by the MyHeart developments using circular and flat bed knitting technologies outlined by Rita Paradiso and of Smartex in Italy and Herald Reiter from Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands.

In fact bio-monitoring applications appear to be the main driver behind total integration of e-textiles. Although some projects, including the MyHeart and NYX garments still relied on the inclusion of external or encapsulated devices to enhance their effect (eg wet electrodes or electronic sensors), Mark Pedley of Smartlife Technology, UK presented a totally textile based sensor system for Bio-monitoring.  Smartlife’s business model has also evolved to meet the growing demand for access to technology and Mark outlined a focus on exploiting their extensive knowledge of textile sensors to help clients create garments with embedded, unobtrusive bio-monitoring.

Away from garment applications, An overview of the STELLA (stretchable Electronics for Large Area Applications) project presented by Johan de Baets from IMEC, Belgium introduced stretchable e-textile interfaces and connectors and Guido Chappa of D’Appolonia, Italy discussed a wide range of thought provoking developments including digital conductive printing, chemical sensors, and a focus on the prospects for reinforcing and monitoring textile applications in civil engineering markets.  The CONTEXT textile structures for architectural use and POLYTECT sensors for masonry and geo-technical applications shown were examples of the breadth of opportunities in this technical market sector.

Plasma technology

Fog harvesting - image: University of California, IrvineAlthough the Smart Fabrics conference had, as ever, a strong bias towards e-textiles and wearable technology, other SFIT (smart Fabric and Intelligent Textiles) technologies were also represented.   Jas Pal Baydal of Durham University, UK outlined the advantages of and opportunities for functionalised textile surfaces created using plasma technology.  With some commercially successful ventures (P2i labs and Surface Innovations Ltd) supplying products to niche markets, Jas presented applications for textile surface modification beyond the ubiquitous “lotus-effect” ultra-hydrophobic materials.  Anti-bacterial, fire retardant and timed-release perfume applications are all applications currently possible using Plasma treatment.  One of the most off the wall but fascinating functions discussed, however, was the creation of ultra-hydrophilic (water-loving) fabrics, to create “fog harvesting” textiles.  Inspired by the Stenocara beetle which survives in the Sahara desert by collecting water on its back from fog, these fabrics are used to harvest water in areas with very low rainfall.

Conductive polymers, switchable surfaces, plastic solar cells, light emitting textiles and European Funding for SFIT through Framework 7 (FP7) were some of the additional topics covered at the conference, highlighting the problem of a packed agenda accommodated by 3 simultaneous break-out sessions.  Covering the entire conference is simply not possible unless you attend with 2 colleagues! However, the availability of many of the conference papers online in advance of the conference was a useful tool to help decide which sessions to attend and which to forgo.

With commercial delegate fees of £1,000 compared to academic delegate fees of just £250, it was not surprising to note that over a third of the delegates attending represented research interests.  The organisers accept that the fee structure has unfortunately excluded a large number of small businesses who would otherwise find the conference extremely rewarding and who could benefit the discussion and collaboration opportunities it represents.  As the sector is largely characterised by small start-ups, Intertech Pira are keen to address this imbalance for future conferences.  Ideas being considered include re-considering the fee structure and the conference format going forward, which could see the inclusion of an exhibition at future events.  As next year’s planned venue is currently the USA, however, unfortunately, it seems likely that these benefits won’t filter through for European participants until 2011 or beyond.

Overall, the Intertech Pira Smart Fabrics conference has firmly established its position as a milestone annual event for participants in the SFIT sector.  Whilst it remains a significant budget consideration for many small and independent players, it always delivers excellent value as a conference where delegates can network, learn, create collaborations, explore new business opportunities, find buyers and in the end, leave inspired and enthused to further expand and explore the world of Smart textiles and Interactive textiles.

Our correspondent Cath Rogan is the Principal of Smart Garment People, a textile and clothing consultancy network and product development agency, which specialises in cutting-edge ‘smart’ textile technologies for defence, first responder and elite sports and outdoor wear markets.

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