Intelligent textiles: Another technology breakthrough

imagesIn my previous post I discussed how chemical companies are trying to cope with how technology is changing the workplace: the need to train insufficiently skilled/ educated workers to use the automated controls and robotics now increasingly used in plants that must compete in a globalized world. Now a broad-scaled initiative to help the U.S. in creating jobs and develop leadership in technology is starting to make progress in another area: the production of specialized fabrics that weave in tiny ceramic, metal and fiberglass fibers as “semiconductors, LED’s, solar cells and sensors that can see, hear, communicate, store energy, warm or cool a person or monitor a wearer’s health.” Clothes that include sensors and chips will then become another form of “wearable technology”, joining the Apple Watch and fitness monitors.

This is still in its early stages, but is receiving strong support.  MIT, the Department of Defense and a number of textile and other companies are cooperating in a private-public consortium Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) to accelerate innovation in high-tech, U.S.-based manufacturing involving fibers and textiles. The developers state that the fabrics made from these fibers will have the ability to see, hear and sense their surroundings; communicate; store and convert energy; monitor health; control temperature; and change their color. The consortium, with $75 million in Federal funding out of total initial funding of $ 317 million, will focus on developing these new technologies and training the workforce required to operate and maintain these production systems. Two dozen start-up incubators are planned at different locations.

The aim is to create an entire new industry, based on a number of breakthroughs in fiber technology and use in the manufacture of fabrics. With a history of losing textile manufacturing, first to Southern U.S. and then to China and elsewhere, the government of Massachusetts, which is a partner in AFFOA, claims that the consortium will unlock new advances in military technology and support the development of new manufacturing methods, bringing new employment opportunities back to the state.

In an example of how new technology of this kind is already being applied, Inman Mills, a South Caroline company founded in 1901, has successfully transitioned from making shirting and apparel lining – a business lost to overseas competition – to making flame-resistant fabrics, with fibers including silica to fiberglass. The next step is to make these fibers “smart”, leading to the technologies being developed by AFFOA.Smart textilesCredit: Bloomberg Business News


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