When science fiction was blossoming into its own media genre, the year 2020 was held up with high expectations. We were supposed to live in virtual landscapes, drive flying cars and visit other planets like we were going to the corner store. Maybe those ideas held a little too much fiction in them, but a lot of impressive tech has been developed in recent years. The future has already arrived in slightly different ways than expected.
While we’re inventing new things, we’re also expanding on the technology we already have and revisiting old ideas, such as smart textiles. With all of this new technology, these e-textiles can be more versatile and useful than ever before. Our drive to improve on what we already have can lead the smart textile industry and all those supported by it to new heights.
What Are Smart Textiles?
Smart textiles, also known as intelligent, electronic or e-textiles, is a concept we came up with over a thousand years ago that’s made a revolutionary impact on human life in the last few decades. Electronic textiles are fabrics that conduct electricity, which can then sense changes in the environment and respond in a particular way.
When we refer to an electronic textile, however, we don’t just mean that there are conductive materials in the fabric. A smart textile of the future must have the capabilities to sense, communicate and transmit information. While this sort of technology may seem like a further breach of privacy, e-textiles that advanced are likely to not be used for entertainment or convenience purposes for some time.
Smart Textiles: Then and Now
Technically, smart textiles existed many years ago. Fine metal foils like gold and silver were woven into fabrics as decoration, used for things like embroidery and fine gowns. It wasn’t until the 19th century, though, that people started to intentionally use materials like gold for their conductive properties. Astronauts’ space suits, for example, were made with technology in mind — they needed to be able to control temperature and inflate or deflate when needed.
In the 1990s, MIT researchers began investigating smart textile options for military use. Unlike bulky astronaut suits, these textile options focused on interactive clothing that didn’t get in the way, and eventually, it influenced what everyday people could wear in the future. Today, our smart textiles vary from LED lights woven into fabrics to clothing that can read the wearer’s biometrics. The more uses we find for smart textiles, the more advances we’ll make.
Smart Textile Uses
There are many uses for smart textiles, but most of them fall into one of two categories: aesthetic and performance. Aesthetic uses include our example of fabrics with woven LED lights, but the possibilities go beyond that. Some e-textiles have been designed to change color, shape or provide interactive elements. Performance uses are all about function over fashion. Like the aforementioned astronaut suits, these can regulate temperature, guard against radiation, control muscle vibrations and provide other uses.
Smart textiles can be used in any industry, however, some industries see more benefits than others, particularly the medical and healthcare sector. With e-textiles, there’s a hope that we can track psychological conditions, create more anti-aging features and even administer medicine through the clothing.
Producing Smart Textiles
Surprisingly, manufacturing smart textiles isn’t a very expensive venture. As technology advances, the components used in e-textiles have become a lot cheaper over time, allowing them to be produced and sold at a reasonable rate.
Instead of creating gold, silver or copper threads, manufacturers simply coat already existing threads from fibers in various conductive materials. However, even this practice doesn’t have to be used a lot. By combining cotton or nylon with a metal fiber, they can become conductive on their own. All in all, the reduced need for materials leads to less money having to be involved.
Selling Smart Textiles
Having a lower price than expected certainly helps the selling point, and with technology getting even more ingrained in society as time passes, e-textiles will likely surge in popularity, too. With low prices and plenty of markets to choose from, the smart textile industry will likely not have problems continuing into the positive in the next decade — but more can be done to ensure the business booms.
For example, some companies that focus on more niche markets like the military or PPE may see better sales than just the fashion industry. For e-textiles to see a huge jump in technology, there needs to be a lot of sales and demand for something, in particular, to make the venture worthwhile. Those demands will likely come from the space and healthcare industries, which have been the biggest buyers of e-textiles for years.
Why We Need Smart Textiles
We’ve entered the age of convenience and instant satisfaction. We already talk to appliances for simple actions or to satisfy fleeting curiosity, so getting our clothing involved in the rapidly approaching future is almost too easy at this point. To get to this future, though, we’re going to need the tech that e-textiles brings to healthcare and other industries, allowing us to advance in more sectors as well. The 2020s won’t be without e-textiles showing up in the limelight at least a few times.