E-Textiles In Fashion, Wearable Tech, And How Electronics Might Heal Themselves One Day

Photo By Groman 123

Did your cell reception improve when that guy walked in the room?

Wearable electronics are quickly becoming part of our everyday lives.

Many were impressed by the fiber optic LED-laced dress on show at London Fashion Week in 2014, and the one worn to the MET Gala in May. They seem to indicate that e-textiles aren’t just ‘techy accessories’ but are making a big leap into the world of fashion. With technology advancing, the not-so-cool shirts of the ’90s are being replaced by truly wearable tech.

There are several patents pending, and with production costs dropping, there’s likely to be more soon.

Shirts with a built-in antenna that can transmit information to your phone. How about a bandage that can tell how much tissue is healing underneath. There seems to be a focus on sensors for medical and health purposes, which could signal growth in those industries. 

Tracking your fitness level and activity at the gym is just a starter. People with chronic illnesses such as Epilepsy, Asthma, Parkinson’s, or addictions might benefit from such technology. Monitoring sleep patterns and other behavior could show potential risks before they become problems. A wrist watch (or an iWatch one day) preventing Asthma attacks by measuring activity, lung function, ozone levels, humidity, and blood pressure — then alerting the wearer when they need to slow down.

Researchers at Ohio State University are making big advancements in wearable electronics by affixing sensors and memory chips to clothing.

Most e-textiles are created with a typical sewing machine, by embroidering silver metal wires into fabric based on a pattern read to it from a computer. The wires and workmanship are so fine, that the embroidered fabric feels like any traditional garment.

 “We started with a technology that is very well known–machine embroidery–and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors? Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”
                                  -John Volakis, Director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State

One of their recent projects is a broadband antenna made up of more than six geometric shapes. Each shape is about the size of a finger nail, and transmits at a different frequency, creating the broadband capability, with different shapes performing different functions. Together, they form a circle that is only a few inches in diameter. 

They originally used silver coated polymer thread, but switched to a much thinner copper wire with silver enameling. Fine wires are needed to maintain precision, but there’s a catch; they don’t provide as much surface conductivity as thick ones.

Their solution: Find different shapes and densities that improve performance.

Techniques have been refined to use less thread, which = lower costs, and take about half the time to produce. Only 15 minutes.

A major selling point is the ability to make them into different shapes, like a company logo, similar to standard embroidery. One antenna that improves cell phone reception is shaped like a spiral, another prototype is stretchable. 

There are other new advances in electronic development too. Self-healing materials are getting some attention. Yes, you read that right. Something that has been cut in half, putting itself back together. Previous attempts to do this, weren’t a huge success, as all core functions must be restored to operate. Most materials up to now have been soft or gummy in texture, but Qing Yang, a professor at Penn State, and his team have been using two boron nitride nanosheets to make common plastic polymers stronger. Boron nitride nanosheets have several unique qualities, one being their resistance to water .You can put them under the shower and they won’t skip a beat.

The nanosheets connect to each other through hydrogen bonding groups. Two pieces are placed near each other and electrostatic attraction brings them together. It’s only ‘healed’ when the hydrogen bond has been restored. This can require extra heat in some circumstances, but many materials can heal at room temperature.

 “Most research into self-healable electronic materials has focused on electrical conductivity but dielectrics have been overlooked. We need conducting elements in circuits, but we also need insulation and protection for microelectronics. This is the first time that a self-healable material has been created that can restore multiple properties over multiple breaks, and we see this being useful across many applications.” 
                                                                      -Professor Qing Yang

An exciting time for the electronics and fashion industries. Unfortunately, a breakdown in communication between engineering and fashion/design experts could hinder development. A recent study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education found that people working together, but with different areas of expertise, were using their own jargon, not that of the other person’s. This resulted in confusion and misunderstanding, even though they were talking about the same thing. Sound familiar?

Land Alliance Northeast

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