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The Smart Fabrics Conference 2023

Medical products and new technology for e-textiles were among the topics.

Features | May 8, 2023 | By: Janet Preus

Air Force Research Laboratory scientists have discovered a unique stretchable conductor that uses a polymerized liquid metal network. Photo: Second Bay Studios.

This year’s Smart Fabric Summit was again organized by the Advanced Textiles Association (ATA) and the Wilson College of Textiles, North Carolina State University (NC State) in Raleigh, N.C. The event took place on the NC State campus April 11–12. It began with a full day of education and ended with an additional morning of education, student project presentations and tours of the College of Textiles facilities. 

Next in medical textiles

A panel of experts discussed recent developments in medical textiles, from devices to the impact of intensive testing for PPE.  Michelle Lishner, lead development engineer, Cortland Biomedical, provided information about current biomedical textile devices and basic requirements. Textiles, generally, are well suited for medical devices, she said, “because they are so customizable, can be fashioned at large scale, are lightweight, dependable and biocompatible.” 

Braided materials are often used in making robotic surgical tools, and, interestingly, much of Courtland’s biomedical braiding technology is actually miniaturized versions of much larger braided materials, she said. 

Lishner also noted the direction likely for the future in medical textiles. “There is a desire to be thinner and smaller,” she said, “but they need to be stronger and more durable, too.” The use of color in textile implants is a newer development. Color helps to indicate when if there is some irregularity in the device’s placement. 

Dr. R. Bryan Ormand, assistant professor in the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State, described the “mechanisms of protection for personal protective equipment” (PPE) and how PPE is tested to determine efficacy. PPE must protect against agents that could be in a gas or vapor state, a liquid or an aerosol. The means of entry and how that endangers the body varies, so the means of protection for each must be considered. 

Testing is also variedand complex—in order to address the type of agent, means of penetration and the PPE’s resistance to each. These could include bacterial and viral threats; liquids, such as blood or other body fluids; chemical dangers, including fuel, which responds quite differently from water; and particulates of all kinds in aerosol form.

Ormand’s team also tests a device, such as a mask, for how it responds in real-life use situations. Head motions of all kinds can impact the mask’s efficacy, and even these movements were studied carefully. Masks were also tested for filtration and breathability. 

Protective suits have been tested by Ormand’s team that’s addressing an ongoing concern.  “The challenge of getting someone out of a protective suit without contaminating the area or cross-contamination, that’s the hardest part,” he says. 

An important goal in developing new protective products is also to create reusable products to reduce the huge quantity of waste generated every day by disposable protective products. 

Textile-integrated liquid metal electronics

Dr. Braden Li, materials research engineer at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (LCMC) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) explained a new technology being explored for textile-integrated liquid metal electronics that uses polymer architectures paired with printable liquid metal Eutectic Gallium Indium (EGaln) inks. This technology can create conformable and flexible functional textile electronics that could be used in heating, sensing and data routing. 

There are multiple advantages in using this technology, according to Li, including that it’s highly stretchable and maintains durability for data transfer and power transfer. Textile-integrated liquid metal electronics can also be used in capacitive sensing devices, including soft robotics that were developed in collaboration with GE. 

Active heating high dexterity gloves have also proven to be successful. These were developed in a partnership between AFRL and LCMC. The gloves are capable of tunable heating and offer “exceptional comfort with no impact to touch and feel,” Dr. Li says. As EGaln is a non-toxic material, biocompatibility testing with the liquid metal in contact with skin showed no irritation caused by the device. Silk-based biosensing electrodes were used because silk is well-known to be skin friendly.

Additional textile-based wearables could be developed in sensing, haptics and virtual reality applications. Capacitive sensing has not been commercialized yet, but he says that it will be in the next couple of years. 

Advanced robotics manufacturing

Glen Saunders, senior research engineer, Manufacturing Innovation Center (MIC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, described the work being done at MIC and a large network of institutes and collaborative industry partners that make up Manufacturing USA. 

One of them, the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute (ARM Institute) supports innovations in manufacturing with project management, funding mechanisms and designing robotic systems for improved productivity and efficiencies in textile manufacturing. These include using various types of robotics for sewing, lay-up, doing the literal heavy lifting and providing assistance to human workers, as guided by the human operator. 

Collaborative robots are designed specifically to work safely around human workers. “They’re slower,” Saunders says, “but they stop when approaching an obstacle and have other safety features.”

This is the first of two features covering the 2023 Smart Fabrics Summit. Look for additional content on this event to be published soon on this site. 

Janet Preus is senior editor of Textile Technology Source. She can be reached at

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