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E-fabrics, chip supply chain still lack common ground

20 Nov 2015  | Jessica Lipsky

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According to a panel of wearable technology and fashion, although wearables show promising opportunities for fashion design, the supply chain isn't up to speed. Until devices such as the Apple Watch and Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch made it to the market, most wearables haven't been very fashionable. While organisations such as London's Fashion Innovation Agency aim to bridge the gap between designers and technologists, several obstacles remain before technically complex garments will hang in closets.

"The biggest pet peeve I've experienced is there are two very, very diverse supply chains: the fashion supply chain and the manufacture of electronics, and nowhere do they merge," Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) professor Michael Reidbord stated. "You have to engage the creative element way, way early in the supply chain."

"When you think of the transition from fabric to the garment, you have skill sets that don't exist in contract manufacturing that will be needed," said the president of Propel LLC, a company that develops textile related technologies for the U.S. military and firefighters. "Electrical engineers see making clothing as simple, but it's quite complicated."

Barriers to success

There are very few examples of commercially successful electronic fabrics, due to issues with the textiles, conductive threads and ways of connecting them to electronic equipment. The wearables market is several years from realising a successful manufacturing and commercial market, said King.

Existing e-textiles often lack the strength to withstand industrial processes or regular washing. Silver conductive threads are particularly susceptible to shredding.

Conductive threads have largely been used in the DIY space, an audience member noted, and e-textiles seem to only be in use in fitness or compression-type clothing. Copper and stainless steel are among the materials under experimentation, but "we're years away," according to the FIT professor.

"The current platform of conductive yarns and fibres cause some production hasn't been commercialised, probably, because this technology is part of Department of Defence-funded companies," King said. "If companies can make a viable yarn out of one of the conductive polymers that have been developed, that will be a game changer."

However, advances in semiconductor technology will profoundly affect wearable fashion. Intel's button-sized Curie module and partnership with luxury glasses brand house Luxottica, for example, bodes well for the future of fashionable wearables.

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