E-textiles still dressing up after 25 years of innovation

The e-textile market is growing with sales of smart garments for fitness and industrial uses. (IDTechEx)

Electronic textiles are still an emerging technology for medical, sports, industrial and fashion smart garment applications even though many of the basic patents have been around for 25 years.

A new comprehensive report from IDTechEx examines that history and describes how the entire supply and demand market for e-textiles is expected to reach $2 billion in 10 years

Revenues from e-textiles products reached nearly $100 million globally in 2018, but will shoot to nearly $340 million in 2029, the researchers predicted.

The largest share of revenues in 2018 went to medical and healthcare applications (33%), then sports and fitness (19%) and military and space (18%). Enterprise workwear and personal protective equipment were next (14%), followed by other categories (12%) and fashion (4%).

The report included products that range from wearable biometric monitoring sporting gear to industrial wearables that provide heating and lighting for workers. Materials being used include conductive polymers, conductive inks and conductive yarn. Of about 200 manufacturers and suppliers researched, nearly 40 manufacturers are producing products using all three types.

One concern for the industry is how to hide electronic components in clothing and textiles, including batteries, transistors and microprocessors and antennae. Commercially available products today typically include rechargeable batteries and printed computer boards that contain the essential components.

Often these components are housed in a box, sometimes as small as matchbox or as large as a carton of cigarettes that is worn at the waist or hidden in another location on a smart garment. Sometimes the box can be removed for the clothing to be washed, but others are washable. For the boxes that are removed, designers must find fool-proof connectors, such as traditional snap fasteners or magnetic fasteners. The report looks at connector options for e-textiles in some detail, concluding that the industry has “finally started to converge towards some design standards after years of divergent approaches.”

Patents filed for electronic textiles reached a peak in 2014 at nearly 675, but fell off to about 200 in 2017, according to the report. Since 2015, Samsung has filed the most patents, at 40, followed by Seiko Epson (22) and Nike (20). Going back to 2009, the biggest patentholder by far was BASF SE, with 110 patents, followed by Samsung (60) and Procter & Gamble (58).

Venture capital funding for smart textiles rallied in 2018 at more than $60 million, up from a valley of $30 million in 2017. The report notes that challenges for the technology in the past have included reliability of products, cross-compatibility and standards, materials availability and overhead costs.

The majority of e-textile companies still produce very small volumes of products, the report notes. Despite investments to attempt volume manufacturing there are “still few consistent success stories.”

“However, thanks to significant investment and partnerships, some of these barriers are being lowered, with more players able to make more advanced e-textile products at less prohibitive prices,” the report adds.

“The big picture for e-textiles is extremely promising,” the report concludes. “E-textile products are being explored in many exciting niches, from body motion capture, to prevention of multi-billion dollar diseases and side effects, to improving road safety, and many more.”

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