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Taking on the wearables challenges

Smart fabric R&D zeroes in on next-level breakthroughs.

Features | November 13, 2023 | By: Janet Preus, Marie O’Mahony and Cathy Jones

AFFOA showed a newly developed material for smart products in their booth on the show floor at Advanced Textiles Expo in Orlando. It describes the material as a “flexible, roll-to-roll, inkjet manufacturable, RF metamaterial for wearables.” Photo: Janet Preus. 

The Emerging Technologies Conference, part of the Advanced Textiles Association’s annual Expo, revealed the diversity in advanced textiles’ markets and applications and tackled big questions that need answers to move this segment into a future that many envision. As much as it appears that exciting, new functionalities are nearing breakthroughs, speakers at Expo were entirely open about pointing out challenges and urged attendees and industry participants to work together for solutions. 

The future with textiles 2.0 

In his presentation Dr. Sasha Stolyarov, CEO, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) described the vision AFFOA has for “textiles 2.0,” which brings fibers/textiles together with semi-conductors and advanced materials to create fibers that are devices and fabrics that function as systems. 

What that means, ultimately, is fabrics will be able to see, hear, sense, communicate and perform other, specific functions designed to solve critical defense needs, but also to generate new commercial markets with advanced applications. The range of applications in both market areas is extensive and could include warfighter protection, large area sensing, industrial monitoring and tunable color, among several others. 

This is a big order. One way AFFOA intends to accomplish its mission is by establishing and leveraging a broad “ecosystem” of producers, researchers and government entities. 

AFFOA also intends to nurture a workforce—starting at the high school level—that will be capable of producing these advanced materials in the future. 

“We’ve assembled a national network that will supply the next generation of fabrics,” he says. This network stretches from its manufacturing base to the Fabric Innovation Network, to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense and other federal agencies, to state governments, to Fabric Discovery Centers based at institutions around the country, and, of course, including the “tough-tech” investors who support innovators. All of this is designed for “helping to cross that valley of death,” he says, which prevents a great idea from becoming fully realized and commercialized. 

Among its capabilities, AFFOA can support end-to-end design, from complex material needs to a prototype. It also studies manufacturability and makes the data collected fully available to its members.  AFFOA’s fiber microelectronics capability, which supports functional fiber microsystems, offers “unlimited potential for new capabilities,” he says, and “a whole new way to design an architecture within a thread.” But the fiber capability also has to be integrated into a textile, which it is now doing in yarns and ropes, wovens, nonwovens, knits and composites. 

He also shared a number of success stories from companies that have launched color-changing fabrics, for example, where they addressed the problem of manufacturing to scale. “They started off with a one-meter-long fiber,” he says, “and in less than a year had entire garments.”

They also helped in the development of medicine-infused fabric products, conductive thread made into yarn that’s carbon based, soft robotics for healthcare applications and others. 

Major funding for wearables research

Dr. Dawson Cagle, program manager for the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) presented a description of a relatively new project for IARPA with a memorable name, “SMART ePANTS (Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems). The goal is to develop sophisticated new smart systems in wearables that can see, hear and locate. 

“How are we going to do this?” Cagle asks. “We’re going to spend $96 million,” he answers. “The industrial world is tied by cost, but maybe now we will have the capability.”

Not only is the size and scope of the project significant for the smart textile industry, “It’s the first time we’ve done a research program in clothing,” Cagle says. “This is something the textile community should be preparing for. The need for computers in textiles exists.” 

But he’s not talking about the current system which requires a small computer in the form of a “puck,” to which the wearable system must be attached. “To expand the market, we need electronics that act like clothing,” he says. This includes developing yarn-based computers. 

To achieve these lofty goals, a few “miracles” have to occur, especially computation and data storage, which are currently rigid pucks. “Without a major renovation of this, we will get no further,” he says. 

Why is the intelligence community doing this? Because officers, such as those working for the FBI or as [chemical] weapons inspectors, work in dangerous environments to gather information. “You want to do it in the safest way possible,” he says.

The program is organized in three phases, with Phase I already underway. “Build it” will last 18 months; “Wear it, 12 months; and “Wash it”, 12 months. More information is available at

Hybrid solutions for flexible electronics

What drives every new class of wearables?” Greg Nevolo asks. “Material science plus imagination,” he answers. In his presentation, Nevolo, who works in product innovation for ACI Materials Inc., discussed the major challenges in producing wearables and explained how his company has taken on these challenges. 

Of three main hurdles—connectivity, manufacturing in volume, and integrating functionality into the product—connectivity is “the single biggest issue,” he says. The company’s solution combines conformable, stretchable inks and flexible electronics in fabrics with an “intimate contact” connector. 

“They thought it would be easy,” he says about his company’s research team. “It really wasn’t,” as it took nine months of development across two teams and needed 17 steps to manufacture it. These flexible, hybrid electronics in textiles, however, now offer the potential for low-cost, high-volume production that can drive rapid prototyping and “infinite form factors,” he says. 

Screen printing is, at present, the best method for applying conductive inks in the manufacturing process. But that process is, once again, fraught with “many moving parts with many suppliers.” What’s required is “a marriage of all ecosystem components.” 

Even with the myriad challenges in truly scaling up production, he believes that “the future is here.” Inks and fabrics are pushing boundaries, and he encouraged his audience to “reimagine connections and substrates” and to “create new methods of prototyping and manufacturing.” He also said producers should engineer “with the end solution in mind, not just features,” and to work with manufacturers early in the process.

Sensor yarns for health monitoring

Smart textiles have so much possibility in the medical field, including wound healing and vital signs monitoring. 

Two representatives of the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research Denkendorf (DITF) discussed how sensor yarns are a part of this future in their presentation, “Sensor yarns in biomedical and technical applications.”

Bastian Baesch, head of sensors and actuators for the institute, gave an overview of the yarn wrapping technology and its adaptability. Just about any yarn can be wrapped with the sensor wires, which can be made of any metal—or even be more than one—depending on the electrical properties needed for the application. Sensor yarns are usable in industrial textile processes including knitting, weaving and embroidery, and they’ve been tested through typical manufacturing steps, including washing, drying, dyeing, heat setting, thermocalendering and pleating.

Carsten Linti, head of technology center biomedical engineering for DITF, presented on research into sensory wound dressings, which could monitor chronic wounds, or those that take more than 30 days to heal, such as pressure ulcers on people with limited mobility and foot sores on diabetics. 

In addition to the normal functions of a bandage, multilayer sensory dressings could monitor pH, moisture level and temperature in a wound and relay that information to health practitioners. This could reduce unnecessary dressing changes, while simultaneously allowing for the early detection of inflammation due to bacterial infection. 

The research is preliminary and still needs to be proven in a dynamic environment, but its potential value is underscored by the cost of chronic wound care, which could amount to a $13.6 billion market globally by 2025, he says. DITF’s part in the development of the wound dressing was the moisture sensor yarn later; the project was part of the ULIMPIA project, and seven researchers from four different organizations took part in its development.

Sensor yarns could also be integrated into smart textiles for “location-independent” health monitoring, Baesch notes, from the unborn and infants, to fall-risk adults or those needing unobtrusive monitoring of stress levels, heart function or fitness rehab. 

“All kinds of textiles can be sensorized by wrapped yarns,” Linti says.

Integrating haptics in wearable design

Designing wearables for the five senses—including smell—was the focus of Billie Whitehouse’s conference presentations. She is the CEO and founder of Wearable X, a company that offers aline of activated yoga apparel with integrated sensors and haptic (vibration) feedback and audio instructions.

The product’s software is designed to guide the wearer in his or her yoga practice by measuring still yoga postures. “This is much more difficult to do than repetitive motions,” she says.

Keeping focused on user experiences are essential for good design in wearables, she argues, pointing out the need to look deeply into ergonomics so that the wearer can feel the vibrations and learn what action to take. 

The haptic capabilities, however, need to be as unobtrusive as possible and that hampers commercial viability. “Selling invisible technologies is really, really hard,” she says. 

Her own working process and experiences collaborating with very diverse partners and clients illustrates just how flexible stakeholders need to be in this market space, and she’s had to learn “how to work with big companies,” she adds. 

“Do not put the tech before the human experience,” she cautions. “Put the human first. You’ll end up winning them over. … The question is, how can we make smart textiles more meaningful?”

Janet Preus is senior editor of Textile Technology Source. She can be reached at Dr. Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic based in London. She is a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. Cathy Jones is senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and can be reached at

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