The future of fabric – smart textiles and patents
Many technologies used in the field of smart textiles have existed for many years, however their integration into a textile may well be novel and deserving of patent protection. Despite challenges that may be encountered in the development of smart textile technology, the opportunity for innovation in this field is substantial and with swift technological advances, growth in this sector does not show any signs of slowing down.
Smart textiles may be defined as intelligent fabrics that contain smart components, such as sensors or electronics, to provide a user with enhanced functionality. This combination of electronics and textiles yields smart and responsive materials in the form of either wearable (e.g. t-shirts, bras etc.) or non-wearable (e.g. vehicle upholstery) technology. The smart textile may take the form of a material embedded with sensors or electronics, and the resulting material may then provide the user with increased functionality by sensing and reacting to environmental conditions or stimuli, and this in turn can allow the user to monitor health and performance. Smart textiles find applications in a range of areas from healthcare (professionals and patients), sport and fitness, military and not to mention fashion.
Historically, fabric-based items did not include electronic components or sensors, with the main criteria for fabric design being comfort, fashion, or in some circumstances utility purposes. A key challenge of integrating the smart element into the textile product is that of maintaining comfort, as the electronics or sensors may be cumbersome and hard to touch.
The field of functional textiles, wherein the fabric has inbuilt functionality, is closely related to the field of smart textiles, the technologies often going hand in hand resulting in textiles with desirable properties.
Convergence of smart technology with the textile industry has led to a flurry of research and innovation in this sector, and an increase in intellectual property activity, with patented technology forming the basis of much development in the field.
Active research in the area of smart textiles is well underway in institutions such as universities, to start-ups and larger well-known multinational companies.
Researchers at Ulster University, in collaboration with Bioflex Yarns Ltd., recently carried out research in the area of thermoregulating products, integrating phase change materials into yarns, with a view to application in the healthcare setting, in particular potentially beneficial for people suffering from diabetes who are prone to blood circulation issues.
Further afield, in Canada, exciting research is underway at the University of Waterloo, where researchers have recently developed a new type of smart material, which they claim is the first to respond to both heat and electricity. This smart material is made from polymer nano-composite fibres, which are in turn made from recycled plastic; these fibres are woven with stainless steel resulting in a programmable fabric which can change colour and shape when stimuli are applied.
Canadian Hexoskin describe themselves as a “growing private company”; they developed smart biometric clothing to track vital signs, with applications in areas such as healthcare to fitness and even space exploration. By way of collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, Hexoskin investigated application of their product to monitor astronaut’s health in space. Their wearable respiratory inductance plethysmography technology is patented technology.