Electronic textiles (e-textiles) is a nascent research field where scientists and engineers are exploring how to incorporate an array of digital components into traditional clothing. Intrepid researchers at Ohio State have tested how silver metal wires woven into fabric could boost your cellphone reception whereas other organizations are exploring the concept of morphing human skin into a live computer screen.

Dr. Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Ph.D., is the research director at IDTechEx, which is a global business intelligence firm covering emerging technologies like e-textiles and conductive inks.

He worked with his colleague technology analyst James Hayward on a report entitled E-Textiles 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players that was published this past June.

Dr. Ghaffarzdeh answered a few questions for R&D Magazine through email summarizing the report along with highlighting key trends to watch in this developing market.

Please discuss your background. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What did you study?

“Prior to working at IDTechEx, I completed my masters and Ph.D. at Cambridge and University College London, respectively. For my Ph.D., I collaborated with Samsung to develop and characterize advanced IGZO transistors. We identified a major instability mechanisms, explained its origin and proposed ways of remedying it.

I have been working with James Hayward on this topic. He is a well-known figure in the emerging e-textile industry, and has been covering the broader topic of wearable technology since joining the company two years ago. Prior to this, James completed a MSci in chemistry at Imperial College London.”

Please discuss your report on e-textiles. Which market sector do you feel will be the most lucrative and/or has the most potential for innovative ideas?

“The majority of the recent commercial focus has been on the sports and fitness sectors. This creates a spectrum of products: at one extreme, companies are targeting near-consumer, or more specifically “weekend warrior” users in the hope to reach a larger volume; at the other, companies focus carefully on elite sports, where the extra comfort and form factors from e-textiles can be an advantage over existing systems using other non-textile devices.

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However, growth here has been slow, so we have identified areas such as home textiles and the medical space as two areas that have excellent potential. For the former, many examples so far have been solutions looking for problems; we have an arsenal of technology that can be put in textiles, but only now are the larger textile companies beginning to creatively apply these innovative solutions to some of their needs.

In medical, the problems are clearer but the lead times are longer. So far, we’ve seen examples in patient monitoring, wound care, in hospital use (e.g. on beds, as moisture, pressure or temperature sensors), and more, but we need to understand that development and adoption is lower when the regulation is tighter and the stakes are higher.”

Google unveiled project jacquard a few months ago, which weaves interactive features into clothes through standard looms. This could be one of the most high-profile e-textile projects, but can you elaborate on any potential opportunities or challenges you see for this venture?

“It was great to see the Levi’s urban cycling jacket with the technology directly integrated after about 18 months of work. It’s an interesting collaboration that will hopefully give the space exposure, and encourage large players (from both the apparel and technology side) that have been working on relevant technology for some time to push towards more commercial endpoints. In theory, all of the technology used has been achievable previously (e.g. wireless connectivity, textile connectors, woven touch pads, etc.), but the Google project does it with an elegance and design-first approach that resonates well with many textiles players, and a marketing message that will make a splash.

As ever, we must be wary of hype; Google projects have a track record of letting the evangelical marketing run away with itself before a product or market is ready (exhibit A = Glass c. 2013), and much of this technology is, on paper, nothing new. However, with the technology understanding beginning to flow through the the textiles value chain all the way to the roots, we forecast that many of the previous problems over scalability, platform viability and understanding will begin to be overcome over the next decade enabling faster growth.”

Are there any companies/startups you know of that are working on intriguing e-textile projects that may warrant more attention?

“We’ve tracked over 80 companies in the space, and the variety is significant. One thing I would outline is the true global nature of the industry. We’re hosting a conference covering e-textiles this November in Santa Clara, CA with e-textiles speakers already confirmed from Sri Lanka, India, Korea and Japan, as well as the US and Europe, we’ll hopefully represent the truly global nature of this industry.

It will sit alongside a large exhibition of around 250 companies including both e-textiles and wearables, but also related areas such as printed electronics, energy storage & harvesting and more. To name just a few relevant e-textiles exhibitors at the event, it’s worth taking a look at Bebop Sensors (fresh from closing a new $5m convertible note just yesterday), Ohmatex and Fisk Alloy to see the breadth of companies that are involved.”

What role will conductive inks play in the future of wearable devices? What issues do conductive ink suppliers need to address in order to stay competitive? 

“Conductors are a central part of any e-textile systems.  This is a complex space since conductive inks are one of many approaches being concurrently developed for e-textiles. To name a few, these approaches include metal cabling, textile cabling, conducting knits, conductive wovens, conductive inks, etc. all of which we cover in our latest report on the topic: E-Textiles 2016-2026.  There is no clear-cut winner. This is because some approaches win, say, on ease of integration with existing processes or maturity, whereas others win on increased clothing-like appearance and feel.  The technology composition will therefore be a mixed bag in the medium-term as e-textile manufacturers will likely select their conductor of choice based on the specific requirements of each application and their own existing production processes.

In the long-term, e-textile conductive inks will have a larger addressable market than all the other solutions. This is because they offer the highest degree of universal applicability: their integration is a post-production process that can be used by almost any textile manufacturer unless the fabrics cannot withstand high laminating temperatures or are very loose.

The ink technology however is not yet finished article. Achieving washability, direct-on-fabric printability, and high stretchability are challenging technical requirements. The industry is only beginning to accumulate expertise here. Therefore, this is the beginning of the beginning and we expect better e-textile conductive inks in the future.

The process currently is also too complicated because the inks need to be printed and cured on a substrate such as TPU before being encapsulated using a similar substrate. The film then needs to be hot laminated over the fabric. This approach improves washability and durability, and does away with the technical headache of having to develop a different ink optimised for each fabric substrate, but screams out to be simplified.”