E-textiles have made a computer wearable. These intelligent fabrics have electronics embedded in them and facilitate digital components. Electronic textiles make use of conductive fibres and the electronic parts are innate to the fabric. Hence e-textiles are made up of minuscule conductive fibres, which exist naturally or are specially treated to be conductive. They are used to make clothes, in interior designing, medical care, and safety purposes. E-textiles can function as sensors, data transfer systems, antenna, thermo chromic displays, and heating elements.
This sector has been growing rapidly over the last decade. The last five years have seen many commercial products as an outcome on e-textiles popping in the market. Continuous innovations and increasing demand of e-textiles has expanded the market. The compound annual growth rate, of the American market for such smart textile is said to be 37.9%, while the market in Europe, in 2010 was worth over 300 million Euros, and is estimated to grow 20% each year.
Functioning of e-textiles is dependent on five main components namely interconnected architecture, hardware, software, platform, and performance metrics. Platform is the main fabric which involves various structures and manufacturing processes. The interconnected architecture concerns with the designing, fusing of data paths, and intermingled electronic circuits. The hardware constitutes the microchips, sensors, and other such mechanisms, and is a vital element for e-textiles. All kinds of information processing and communication are taken care by the software in e-textiles. Last but not the least, the performance metrics plays a pivotal role, in evaluating all the remaining four parameters such as costs, manufacturing aspects, physical dimensions, and dataflow rates. These five facets form the fundamental base for the operation of e-textiles.
Since e-textiles act as a second skin, they are being used for unique purposes especially in the health and medical care industries. These fabrics are designed to provide comfort and functionality at the same time. This amalgamation of operative clothes and integrated electronics has given rise to usage of e-textiles in the health care sector.
The smart sensor system helps in monitoring and communicating a patient's condition, since they detect, acquire, and transmit physiological signals.
E-textiles can be used in the areas of health care, to study and scrutinize cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological disorders. Many companies have exploited the sensor option and have imbibed it in producing advanced sports and athletic wear.
The e-textiles in the health and medical care make use of two kinds of elements i.e. conductive textile materials and electronic devices. The conductive textile materials are made up of two main kinds of fibres, electrical conductive and optical conductive fibres.
The electrical conductive fibres are assimilated with high metallic fibres developed from metals like nickel, aluminium, stainless steel, ferrous alloys, carbon, copper, and titanium. Such fabrics are made with fine and minute metallic filaments to make them comfortable to wear and skin-friendly. The diameter of these electrical fibres ranges from 1 to 80 microns. Producing a blend like this is expensive and the fabric manufactured as a result, tends to be a little heavy.
Optical conductive fibres make use of filaments made up of molten glass through bushing. These fibres are transparent, use perfluoro polymers, and convey signals in the form of pulse of light. The diameter of these fibres is close to 120 microns. The optical fibres provide sunlight resistance. Such conductive fibres are used to design clothes for defense personnels for motion capturing and tracing objects. The only drawback of these fibres is that they do not provide flexibility in terms of draping, since they are stiff in nature.
Electronic devices like sensors and processors, in the form of chips are used in e-textiles for the medical industry. The sensors are used to measure chest compressions, light and temperature, pressure & flexing, and even monitor heart beats. With the emergence of e-textiles in the field of medicine & health care, these sensors are being designed and modeled in such a way, so that they can send information regarding a certain patient, directly to doctors or supervisors, seated at a far distance through wireless assistance.
The following are some path-breaking innovations in e-textiles that can be of great use in the health care sector: a shirt that is connected to an individual's phone and records 30 physiological functions of the body and sending reports to a physician to analyze further; socks that direct diabetes patients to put their feet up for a while to avoid amputation of parts in future. This technology can help understand an individual's physiology better.
The next generation e-textiles will be able to espy not only what is going under, but also happening over the skin. More advancement in this area, will lead to predicting or anticipating a critical events, like a seizure or migraine, and introducing sophisticated concepts, like that of sensor tattoos. Moreover, these e-textiles will self-sustain by using energy from one's body to power its intelligent functions. This will be done by sourcing energy from body heat, breathing, and blood flow.
The growing health care needs and awareness is instrumental in bringing new possibilities and leading edge technologies in the healthcare sector. This is definitely going to change the clichéd definition of clothes, in the near future, and the ways in which our body can communicate better. Electronics and textiles, are nothing but technology at its best, and can work wonders for the healthcare sector.