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Avantex: Adding Tech To Textile Business

FRANKFURT -- Technologies ranging from jackets that can be inflated to increase their insulating capacity to clothing that uses the wearer's body heat to generate electricity were trotted out at last month's Avantex International Innovation Forum and...

FRANKFURT — Technologies ranging from jackets that can be inflated to increase their insulating capacity to clothing that uses the wearer’s body heat to generate electricity were trotted out at last month’s Avantex International Innovation Forum and Symposium for High-Tech Apparel Textiles, where executives debated what it would take to bring them to the consumer.

Experts from research institutes and universities, as well as fabric and fiber companies, addressed topics including: new fiber developments, such as those made of poplar seeds or SeaCellActive’s antimicrobial blend of lyocell, algae and silver composition; advances in added-value textile properties such as shape memory, heat control, odor resistance, antimicrobial properties and protection from the electromagnetic fields given off by computer monitors and cellular phones; soft electronics for apparel; nanotechnology; 3-D body scanning and sizing, and more general issues such as cooperation in the textile chain.

“The fact that there’s an actual fair on wearable technologies is the key issue,” said Edward Thomas, director of advanced materials research at Nike Inc. “It’s still embryonic, but the beauty is that the show has been created.”

Thomas said his interest in new materials encompasses “anything that can impact consumer experience.”

“Softswitch, for example, has great technology,” he said about a British maker of touch-sensitive fabrics that can interface with electronic devices. “What they do is not only about embedding technology into apparel, but about providing other information about the experience of wearing clothes.”

Dale Williams, research director of Milliken & Co.’s fashion apparel and specialty fabrics new ventures team, was another Softswitch fan.

“They’ve probably come the furthest in having something not objectionable on your arm,” he stated, referring to the technology’s wearability. “Things are coming a lot closer to being commercial, but many systems are still bulky and stiff.”

Softswitch’s advances in weaving conductive materials into fabrics are getting their first commercial test for fall in a black parka from Burton Snowboard, which features a control panel on the sleeve to operate a Sony Mini-Disc Player. Similarly, W.L. Gore & Associates was a multilecture participant and key exhibitor with several commercially applicable innovations like Airvantage, which Gore called a “personally adjustable insulation system.”

By blowing air into chamber components — as one can on an airline life jacket — or releasing the air by pressing on the chamber, the wearer can regulate the garment’s ability to retain heat. The chambers can be incorporated into outerwear as permanent or removable linings. The company said it expects the new technology to appear in the winter lines of several makers of high-performance outerwear.

Many of the concepts being discussed and lauded at Avantex, were not quite ready for the production line. Sympatex took home one of the nine Avantex Innovation prizes for its push-button heat-regulating system, called Vairis. The prototype Vairis jacket, based on a recent research project of the Swiss research institute EMPA, fabric maker C.F. Ploucquet and Sympatex, featured a micro-pump that can be used to inflate or deflate three down-filled air chambers made from Sympatex laminate.

Another award winner was Italian designer Alexandra Fede’s “joy dress,” a black sheath that incorporated small sensors and a microchip, which can be programmed to give the wearer massages. Fede also collaborated with DuPont on a BodySculptor collection which she presented at the DuPont Textiles & Interiors booth at Avantex. BodySculptor garments are intended to provide women “with a beautiful body, without surgery,” Fede said. Pants, tops and jackets using new T-400 fiber, related chemically to polyester, and leather with Lycra spandex help create a better shape via compression areas on the tummy and hips. For a “Brazilian bum” or a perfectly uplifted bust, Fede used special spandex linings filled with strategically placed gel inserts.

France Telekom also received a prize for its creative studio’s optic-fiber-screen apparel components, which can be programmed with animated or stationary images, pictograms and messages.

The screened belt, which can be worn alone or in a garment, is also sensitive to sound and movement. Worn in a disco, for example, the images could move faster if the music was faster. The company said the technology could be used in conjunction with modern telecommunications functions to download animated images from an Internet portal to a garment or accessory.

France Telekom participated in the Frankfurt show to primarily find new partners to collaborate on its new wearable communications projects, a goal that was met, said Laurent Ponthou, creative studio manager.

“We also met partners who wanted to buy our products,” she added.

Infineon Technologies was also on the lookout for potential partners in the wearable-electronics field. It showed practical applications for new technology in garments designed in cooperation with the German Master School of Fashion in Munich. One approach the semiconductor manufacturer expects to be marketable in the near future is a voice-controlled MP3 player, in which the electronics of the player are directly integrated into the fabric of the clothing as a thin, washable band. This won an Avantex award, as did Infineon’s thermogenerator. It uses the difference between the temperature of one’s body and the temperature of the clothing one is wearing to generate small amounts of electricity, which would be sufficient to power medical sensors or microchips to allow a garment with electronic features to work without batteries. It’s a technology that has already been used in outer space.

Another project that attracted attention was an electronic clothes hanger from the Klaus Steilmann Institute. The hanger can read and display information, such as size and price, encoded on a thin, round transponder stuck into the lining of a garment. Retailers could use the hangers to centrally control and change their prices.

“We’re obviously looking for the next innovation we can apply to our brands,” said Kris Tulin of Levi Strauss & Co.’s Dockers brand’s research and development department as she ran from one Gore presentation to the next.

She said the most impressive lecture she heard at Avantex — which closed its three-day run on May 15 and attracted 2,700 trade visitors, 80 exhibitors and 84 speakers — had little to do with technology. Rather, it focused on economics.

“It was about long-wave theory, and provided a great perspective to what’s coming next,” she said.

Long-wave theory, as L.A. Nefiodow of the German St. Augustin research institute explained, concerns 40-to-60-year-long economic cycles spurred by major discoveries that not only create their own markets but influence the rest of social and economic development. The first Kondratieff cycle, named after its discoverer, began in the 1800s with the steam engine, followed by steel railways, the electrical and chemical industries, automobiles and petrochemical industries and — most recently — information technology, which began in the 1950s.

“We are in the late phase of the information-technology cycle. There’s maybe 10 years left,” Nefiodow said. He predicted that the next wave, whatever it may be, will generate $2 trillion in business over a 50-year period.

“Kondratieffs always bring a big spurt of productivity,” he said. His suggestions for possible successors to information technology: bio-technology, solar technology, optical technology or health care. He placed his bet on the latter as likely to be the “locomotive of the 21st century.””