WASHINGTON — Brands, incubators and trade groups gave a preview of some of the latest innovations under development in smart textiles and wearables, a space in which they are investing heavily, at a major summit in the nation’s capital.
The U.S. Commerce Department cohosted the first “Smart Fabrics Summit,” convening a forum that public and private sector officials hope will lead to more collaboration among textiles, apparel brands, high-tech and the government, and bolster the nascent industry.
A series of panel discussions featuring brands such as Ralph Lauren and Adidas, innovation hubs such as Manufacture New York, patent attorneys, academics and several Obama administration officials outlined the scope of the industry and the potential it has to revolutionize the way smart fabrics protect firefighters and soldiers, provide physiological data to health-care providers and athletes, and spur innovations in fashion.
Joshua Teitelbaum, deputy assistant secretary for textiles, consumer goods and materials at the Commerce Department, who is spearheading the agency’s initiative, said his team spent close to a year researching the apparel and textile industries, looking for ways to help it expand and develop.
“We came to a few conclusions. One was that the applications for and potential growth for smart fabrics was very real,” Teitelbaum said. “Second, there were some hurdles that needed to be overcome in order to realize that opportunity. Recognizing that need and the unique ability of the Department of Commerce to convene the public and private sectors, the smart fabric summit was born.”
He said the summit was focused on “talking about some of the most important policy issues facing this emerging industry, the manufacturing challenge of building a textile product with integrated electronics, the federal research investment that is now ongoing to help develop some of the enabling technologies for smart fabrics, the importance of protecting intellectual property and consumer data from the very beginning of product design and the need for standards to set the foundation for growth.”
On a panel titled “Manufacturing Smart Garments — Surprises, Challenges and Lessons Learned — executives gave a broad overview of the evolution of smart textiles and wearables, charting where they’ve come from and giving a glimpse of what is in store for the future of the market.
J.J. Raynor, the White House special assistant to the president for economic policy at the National Economic Council, put the question to executives this way: “How do we take U.S. leadership in technology — particularly in this case of many of those digital technologies — and take them out of the lab and actually into full-scale production, which involves answering many challenging questions: How do we connect many diverse communities? How do we connect the steel toed boots and the stilettos?”
Amanda Parkes, chief of technology and research at Manufacture New York, said the innovation hub for emerging designers is focused on the next wave of wearable innovation.
“When I think about the kind of start-ups we have in our fashion-tech incubator, we are trying to go after a segment of the market that is not the plastic bracelet market, [but instead] the things that are not necessarily the sexy investments for venture capital,” Parkes said.
She pointed to one prototype recently developed by Thesis Couture, part of Manufacture New York’s accelerator program, that involves “re-architecturing the stiletto with new ballistic grade polymers — literally using rocket science to make high heels.”
“These companies need to exist in the world of New York City fashion and have that kind of brand presence, but they also need to have the background and infrastructure, the intellectual property, the technology and engineering of being a tech company,” Parkes said.
Qaizar Hassonjee, vice president of innovation at Adidas Wearable Sports Electronics, who has been developing cutting-edge fibers and yarns for years, from his time at DuPont to his current position at Adidas, said he believes the U.S. can develop the capacity to bring textile and high-tech together and make it in the U.S.
“My perspective is there is a lot of opportunity for it to be done here. Even with the product we [Adidas] made for the German national soccer team, the electronics were made here in New Hampshire,” Hassonjee said.
He said he helped develop one of the first hybrid, heart-monitoring sports bras for Textronics, a spin-off of DuPont’s textile business, and did the first lot of production in a facility in North Carolina.
“The benefit of doing something close to home is tremendous,” he said.
A significant challenge associated with the evolving industry has been finding the right resources and simplifying the process for small start-ups and larger corporations.
The Obama administration has stepped in to provide funding for cutting-edge textiles and apparel with the launch of a $317 million public-private project aimed at boosting the beleaguered textile industry and keeping the U.S. at the forefront of fiber and textile innovation in the military, health care and commercial fields.
To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense and Massachusetts Institute for Technology unveiled details of the Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute at the end of March, comprised of 89 manufacturers, universities and nonprofits and organized by MIT and the DOD. It is all under the banner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America.
“Two weeks ago, we announced the [institute],” Raynor said at the summit. “They are very focused on how to identify not only technology gaps that need to be solved, but also how to regrow that industrial capability in the U.S.”
Stephen Luckowski, program manager for the institute at the Defense Department who led the effort to establish it, gave a few more details about the long-term plan and structure.
“We have a schedule. It’s a five-year program plus six months of stand up,” he said. “These institutes are member-based organizations….Everyone has the opportunity to become a member. We expect within the near term, I hope within the next two to three months, to have a prospective member meetings.”
While the AFFOA consortium was awarded the overall contract, the institute will also be open to a broader membership base.
“There are a lot of folks here who want to participate,” Luckowski said. “This is a unique membership model. It has something called the fiber innovation network, which is actually based entirely on cost share. We’re looking to build a collaborative infrastructure in both prototyping and pilot facilities for fiber and textiles. So if you are a small company and don’t have a lot of cash, that’s not the basis for membership in this institute model.”