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The diverse ecosystem of e-textiles

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By James Hayward, Principal Analyst, IDTechEx

E-textiles are a technology that combines the functionality and connectivity of electronics with the comfort and ubiquity of textiles. This year, despite it being a relatively niche area, hundreds of companies are involved in the development and commercialisation of e-textiles. Of the $70bn wearable electronics market today, only around $0.5bn comes from etextile-based products, with the most successful market being for heated garments.

Active heating can deliver rapid, location-specific warming on demand, which has not been possible via passive techniques. The majority of sales in this area are in bulky outdoor apparel and protective equipment, such as motorcycle gear and PPE. There are also consumer and sports applications including outerwear and base layers, and emerging applications where heating can be used for medical and wellness purposes.

The technology itself remains fairly simple; a power source (usually a large battery) is used for resistive heating of a heating element (usually carbon fibre or stainless-steel microfibre wires) with control elements to prevent overheating. This is a mature technology with practical products and a simple, effective value proposition: prices for heated jackets retail at $150-200. These type products have been launched by many leading industrial companies, luxury and high-street fashion brands, and sports organisations.

Smart clothing

A contrasting case study is that of smart clothing products for monitoring vital signs and other health metrics. In efforts to grow this market, the core technology including the materials, components and processes used has become increasingly complicated and diverse. These products now monitor parameters such as cardiac biopotential (for heart rate, but also other cardiac signals that can be read by an ECG), respiration, motion, position, orientation, muscular activity, temperature, and more. Many of them have made it through to the commercial stage, targeting sports, fitness and wellness, medical and healthcare, as well as military, industrial or safety applications. Most of these sectors are interested in porting their products into textiles, and with it grow the investment, patents and product launches, mostly from the largest companies around. Nevertheless, estimations for total revenue generated from products in this category in 2019 was just a tenth of heated garments, which means that more advanced technology does not necessarily lead to larger market size.

E-textile projects

There are more ways to compare these two type products, beyond just market size. Technological maturity is commonly discussed; established technologies benefit from established supply chains and standards, but newer technology needs to either leverage what has come before or be invested in to create new options from scratch.

Another compare-and-contrast point centres on the long-term vision of each of these categories. Smart clothing for biometric monitoring is regularly referenced with great optimism about its ubiquity in fitness and healthcare technologies, helping to build a fit, healthy society, whereas, heated clothing presents a much less glamorous, yet a certainly more practical short-term application.

A third consideration is around product competition: active heating via e-textiles compete with other options, including improvements in passive heating for textiles, as well as chemical heating. Biometric monitoring exists within a significant ecosystem of competitive products, from smartwatches and pedometers to cardiac skin patches and other wearable medical devices, many of which are mature in their own right and thus represent formidable competition.

These comparisons increasingly show that whilst the reference “e-textiles” may be the common thread connecting them, their differences greatly outweigh their similarities. Which brings us back to the premise that e-textiles bring the best of electronics and textiles together in a single product. This definition-turned-sales-pitch rolls off the tongue, making its popularity understandable.

The e-textiles community is very diverse and contains hundreds of companies and individuals that are innovating, exploring and experimenting with different products, technologies and markets, all involving the combination of textiles and electronics.

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