Our unintelligent wardrobes – Why are we still waiting for the breakthrough of smart textiles?

The great upheaval of smart textiles has been talked about for a couple of decades now, but the actual mass produced product reaching the consumers is yet to be seen. Could smart clothing be a thing of tomorrow? 

We Finns are already quite familiar with different smart devices that facilitate our everyday lives and help take care of our health. We are technology-friendly people and often the first ones to adopt the use of all kinds of smart rings, phones, wristbands and watches. 

However, we are still waiting for the smart textiles to take their place in our wardrobes. 

Research and development of wearable technology has been conducted in Finland and the rest of the world for a long time now by companies, universities and research organisations. All agree on the market potential of smart textiles: it is huge. 

The possibilities created by smart textiles seem almost limitless.

Though, where would we use smart textiles? At home they can be used in different ways to improve human safety and make lives more comfortable. Or to identify the different preferences of the inhabitants when it comes to lighting or heating. 

Smart textiles protect professionals and help them save the lives of others – or the lives of the professionals themselves. In healthcare smart textiles can be used to measure or monitor your own health or the condition of a patient. These are just a couple of rough ideas. 

The most interesting thing is that new innovations are constantly emerging. The possibilities created by smart textiles seem almost limitless. 

Kari Rönkä, Vice President of Sensing Solutions, the research area of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, and Minna Varheenmaa, Project Manager of a project revolved around the competence and innovation ecosystem of sustainable and intelligent textiles of Pirkanmaa, were invited by Fab to discuss the situation and developments in the field. 



The big breakthrough of smart textiles for consumers has not yet happened. Why is that?

Kari: There have typically been three bottlenecks when it comes to smart textiles. The first one is washability. The material must be mechanically durable, moisture-tolerant and it must withstand chemicals. The second one is that electrical functions need a power source. The issue of sufficient duration of use must be solved without increasing the size of the battery. 

The third big challenge is related to production costs – does the smart textile provide a satisfactory level of functionality and is it in proportion with the increased price? Does the smart solution offer the consumer added value that is sufficiently high? 

The sector is fragmented, which can be a good thing on one hand, as it increases the diversification of the developed solutions.

Minna: For the most parts, I agree. There are many technologies and research is conducted around the world. This is why the sector is fragmented. It can be a good thing on the one hand, as it increases the diversification of the developed solutions. 

There is an enormous amount of different approaches to smart textiles. Conductive thread can be embroidered into the fabric, there is printed electronics and 3D printing, you can use snap fasteners or micro-electronics integrated into fibres. 

Kari: Our understanding of the usability of these solutions is continually increasing. One major leap that is now taking place is that electronics is advancing and requires less power nowadays. 

This helps with the challenges concerning the power source. The battery will be of a reasonable size or energy can be harvested. It can be collected from a system’s environment. 

What is the most interesting aspect of smart textiles? What are you waiting for the most? 

Minna: The entire smart textile sector is still young, which makes me feel that as a researcher I am able to make an impact in on the development. It has been inspiring being able to bring a new kind of environmental perspective in to this field with our project (The ecosystem of sustainable intelligent textiles). It’s about finding the solutions of the lesser evil or the greater good, and providing designers with that data. 

– This is quite an exciting stage with all kinds of competing technologies being developed. It is fascinating to see who is the one to come up with the next great innovation and all the possibilities that come with it. 

I believe that the trend of measuring one’s body and health will become even more prevalent.

älykkäät tekstiilielektrodit lihasten stimulointiin (NTT New Textile Technologies GmbH Techtextil Frankfurt 2022)

Kari: I believe in personalised functionality. There are many usage scenarios. The temperature at home, for example. Some like it warmer, others prefer a cooler temperature. What if your home would be able to identify your movements and could  profile the conditions according to your preferences? 

– People are increasingly interested in measuring themselves. I believe that the trend of measuring one’s body and health will become even more prevalent. 

How much is the perspective of responsibility in production being discussed in the field? 

Minna: It is nowadays widely discussed in the textile sector. What is challenging is that smart textiles are, by definition, much more complicated than traditional textiles. 

In terms of recycling, the easiest solution would be if the piece of clothing would be made using only one fibre material. With smart textiles, there are materials with smart properties embedded into the fibre or onto the textile, or there is a plastic coating attaching the electronics to the piece of clothing. How easy is it to separate different components, and are some of them reusable in a new product? 

Kari: You should identify and sort both the material on the textile as well as the electronics embedded into the fabric. This would preferably be done automatically. Practically 100 % of all sorting of textiles is currently still done manually. 

How should the protection of personal data be taken into account in smart textiles? 

Minna: A fundamental question when connecting smart textiles to different services. What to do with the data that is collected using the textiles: who is the one using it, how is it used, and who owns the data? 

Kari: Imagine a patient with a sensor in their clothing. It sends information to a cloud service where the doctor can access it. This entire chain from a sensor to an information system must comply with information security and data protection legislation. 

The sensor and the wireless transfer must use a level of encryption secure enough not to be hacked.

The sensor and the wireless transfer must use a level of encryption secure enough not to be hacked. Also, the information system with the data must be GDPR compliant and meet the requirements of the legislation. 

– Another question mark is what happens when the textile is no longer in use – can we be sure that the data can be removed before recycling? Will the local storage still contain data or not? 

As far as I know, not that much thought has been given to this since there has not been that much practical implementation so far. 

– All in all, data protection is a very important requirement and everyone in the field recognises its importance. 

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