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Smart textiles must be comfortable & reliable

28
Nov '08
Smart fabrics and intelligent textiles – material that incorporates cunning molecules or clever electronics – is thriving and European research efforts are tackling some of the sector's toughest challenges.

Clothes that monitor your heart, measure the chemical composition of your body fluids or keep track of you and your local environment promise to revolutionise healthcare and emergency response, but they present tough research challenges, too.

Smart textiles must be comfortable, their technology must be unobtrusive, they must withstand a difficult and variable environment and, particularly for medical and emergency applications, they must be absolutely reliable.

These are all tough challenges, but they must be overcome to realise the considerable benefits and lucrative market potential of smart textiles and intelligent fabrics (SFIT). The market is thought to be worth over €300m and current growth rates are about 20% a year.

Fashion 2.0
Europe has not been slow to spot the potential of Fashion 2.0, with many projects funded by the EU to develop new applications and innovative solutions to old problems. The EU has even set up a research cluster for the sector.

“We formed the SFIT cluster because there are many European projects researching new types of smart fabric,” explains Jean Luprano, coordinator of the SFIT Cluster. “We wanted to share expertise and find a way to avoid reinventing the wheel. Often the work of one project could help another, even if they were not working on the same area.”

“Many of the underlying objectives are the same, like connectivity, wearability and ensuring the fabric is accepted by users.”

The cluster achieved some remarkable cross-pollination between projects. “The textile electrode used in Wealthy, for example, extended to three other projects, MyHeart, Proetex and Biotex. In Biotex for instance, it was not our intention to develop a dry textile electrode again, so the help was a bonus.”

The SFIT Cluster currently regroups the projects Context, Proetex, Sweet, Stella, Ofseth, Biotex and Clevertex. Lessons were taken from Wealthy, which had finished its work developing intelligent systems for health monitoring before the cluster started, and from MyHeart, which developed a textile sensor for continuous heart monitoring.

DisasterWear, clothing for emergencies
SFIT's Context project sought to develop contactless sensors for the prevention of lower back pain and repetitive strain syndrome.

Proetex aimed its sights at rescue workers like fire fighters and is developing a system to monitor the wearer and the outside environment.

Sweet project is developing stretchable and washable electronics for embedding in textiles so smart clothes can cope with daily wash, wear and tear.

The Stella project is developing stretchable electronics for large area applications. Currently, there are no stretchable electronics on the market but they could have wide application, particularly for health monitoring. The team hopes to develop conducting substrates within the very weave of fabric, which will allow sensors to move with the body.


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