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Wearables Show New Wrinkles

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The good news for wearables is many new conductive yarns and people weaving with them have emerged in the last 18 months. The bad news is there are no standards for their electronic properties, especially after a few cycles in the washing machine.

“I’m seeing a proliferation of conductive fibers, but I still can’t tell yet which are the best fit because we have no standards,” said Cath Rogan, principal of Smart Garment People, a consulting firm in Lancashire, UK. “I’m going to testing houses to help develop benchmarks because when they say a [conductive yarn] is washable, I ask ‘at what temperature, how many times and does that include a spin cycle,’” she said.

Rogan is looking for partners to support her effort, she said in a brief interview after a panel discussion at a conference on wearables here. Her work is just one sign of the rising promise and daunting challenges bringing the textile and electronics industries together.

“The level of complexity for clothing is daunting, [adding electronics] is three times the complexity of adopting a new material like Gore-Tex because it’s not just materials but sensors and electronics,” said Davide Vigano, chief executive of Sensoria which makes socks and shirts that track exercise data. “We are the Gore-Tex of wearables, and we hope to show if we can do it, Nike and Adidas can do it, too,” Vigano said.

“The knowledge we are building every day is amazing, and were filing patents on it,” he added.

“Different kinds of conductive yarns are out there now, even conductive inks for printing, so more options are coming,” said Nadia King, chief marketing officer of AIQ Smart Clothing Inc., a new e-textiles division of a 30-year old garment company based in Taiwan.

At the event, AIQ showed sports garments with a packaged version of 316L stainless steel fabrics sewn into their seams. It is the only conductive fabric it is using so far, and the company has not yet used it as a material in the garment weaving process.

Electronics contract manufacturer Jabil Circuit, Inc. wants to bridge the gap. Last year Jabil acquired Clothing+, an e-textile company, and this week it showed a reference design for sportswear using third-party electronics and data analytics.

But a big issue looms on the horizon. No one has a killer app that can be created at a small premium over today’s garments.

“Premium brands are incredibly cost conscious, they are very cost oriented and this is a big challenge,” said John Dargan, a Jabil senior vice president and chief executive of Clothing+. “What’s undefined is what does the clothing brand get out of [electronics], what’s the upsell, what does the app do – It’s not quantified,” he said.

“Some of the [clothing] brands right now are in an early adopter and trial phase, but if we don’t bring the costs down it won’t go anywhere,” he added. “Making data useful is key to getting customers to come back, so data analytics companies are critical,” he said.

The potential is huge. An estimated 60 billion garments are sold every year, about a third of them for sports, said Rogan. With annual revenues of about $3.8 trillion, textiles are the world’s third largest industry, growing at about 4% a year, “but it’s fragmented,” said Vigano of Sensoria.

The following pages show some examples of e-textiles from a small show floor at the event.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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