Coupled with the development of artificial intelligence and soaring demands for connectivity, we see items around us getting smarter every day. This includes clothes we wear — for instance, garments made with smart fabrics, e-textiles or smart textiles, in other words. Part of wearable systems like smart watches or headsets, these fabrics are one of the most seamless integrations of wearable and electronics.
Largely, smart fabrics are textiles with new functions or based on integrations with information technologies. The materials from this business include fibres, inks, and polymers. One of the most common forms of smart textiles is heated fabrics, sold by numerous fashion brands around the world. Despite challenges of reliability or costs, many developers, including start-ups in South Korea, have continued the efforts to introduce new smart fabric products.
Several companies based in the country have been working on enhancing certain functions of fibres or smart devices attachable to clothing in the last few years.
For example, SanCheong, a manufacturer of protective gear and equipment for firefighters, developed a firefighter garment with improved water repellency and moisture permeability and an attachable smart device to track people’s location and send real-time notifications in 2017. The device makes alarm noises when it does not detect any movement from the people wearing it for 30 seconds and sends GPS signals to a local control centre to identify the location of firefighters in danger.
Kolon Glotech, Inc., a subsidiary of Kolon Industries, the top supplier of chemical products and textiles in South Korea, launched a smart jacket that integrates various security devices in case of distress. Dubbed “Life Tech Jacket”, the jacket is made with heated fibre and has a LED panel to send morse codes, a GPS tracker, and a telematics unit to record surroundings. The person in distress can send rescue requests via smartphones using the data collected from this jacket.
The Life Tech Jacket has a small wind turbine attached to it, which can produce electricity on its own without a secondary charger. According to the company, people can charge their smartphones or other devices with the jacket.
Some companies work on smart fibres that can collect biometric data. Smart textile start-up Mcell, founded in 2015, develops carbon-coated fibre that can sense movements through stretches. Any detected stretches in the fibre – like from arm folding – are transformed into electronic signals. The company plans to manufacture smart wearables that can collect biodata, such as heartbeat, breathing and body temperature, aiming its products to be used for disaster prevention and a safer work environment at industrial sites.
Smart Fabrics for Healthcare
Some companies find uses for smart fibre in the healthcare industry.
PS Solution, a wearable healthcare product developer, made smart shoes that can analyse one’s walking patterns in 2017. Equipped with two microchips with 12 3-D detection sensors, the shoes can measure people’s gait in less than a minute. Through the company’s treadmill machine, “SMART BALANCE”, people can see the data obtained from the shoes and receive suggestions for correct walking and standing postures.
Optical fibre has been mostly used to transmit information by others. However, the company uses it as a sensor, detecting how the amount of information changes based on bends or pressure. Another product of PS Solution is a smart mat, which also corrects people’s postures using fibre-optic pressure sensors. PS Solution developed a program that analyses the volume of information transmitted from the optical fibre mat and studies the postures of people who are sitting on the mat. The mat can also send a vibrated notification to people to remind them to keep a correct posture.
Future of Smart Fabrics
Outside of South Korea, we already have seen tech giants like Google and Microsoft bringing their smart fibre products to the market. Local governments and well-established textile companies like Hyosung TNC are looking for ways to promote the development of smart fibre in the country, but the business seems to be at the infancy stage.
An Dong-jin, an affiliate professor teaching apparel design at Konkuk University, wrote in an article that the smart fabric business will be likely to be led by big tech companies in the future. He also emphasises that visually appealing products will succeed in the competition. “Consumers buy products with beautiful designs even if they are not comfortable, or expensive, or harm their health,” he explained.