A European Commission project called Re-FREAM is seeing researchers from Fraunhofer IZM create electronics-laden smart clothes for the digital era, which are also sustainable.
“Microelectronics not only serves as a fashion accessory but is also brings new functions to clothing. With the help of integration technologies, clothing can be integrated into networks and textile-integrated sensor technology can be used, which opens up perspectives of wearable applications in the field of e-health,” said Christina Dils, Reseracher at group System on Flex, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM.
One difficulty that Fraunhofer researchers are facing is the contact points between electronics and textiles, because these must be manufacturable on an industrial scale and function reliably under typical textile mechanical stresses and washing without loss of performance. At Fraunhofer IZM, the electronic components are shrunk to such an extent to seamlessly integrate with the garment. The connecting conductor tracks are laminated, embroidered or weaved into the fabrics.
There are several sub-projects in the Re-FREAM effort, and the one called “Connextyle” focuses on developing user-oriented garments for medical applications. The tops, which are equipped with textile printed circuit boards and laminated EMG sensors, measure muscle activity and thus optimise rehabilitation processes for patients. An app provides visual feedback from the collected data, generates reports on the heating process and makes it easier for therapists to adapt the measures ideally.
The Re-FREAM researchers claim that particularly challenging and at the same time fruitful is the collaboration in creating sustainable and circular production designs in fashion. Ecological principles are taken into account at the design stage, minimising negative environmental impacts throughout the product’s life cycle. This includes the reliability of the component contacts, the length of time the sensors adhere to the textile, the choice of materials and the modular design for reuse of the microcontrollers. However, the teams do not create individual pieces – they want to show that the path to high-tech fashion can also be an environmentally-friendly one. They also worked on circular business models that fit the sustainable mission of the projects.
The Re-FREAM project researchers are currently developing sensory textiles and textile-suitable interconnection technologies, as well as thermoplastic substrates that can be integrated into almost any fabric.