More than Just Clothing：The Rise of “Smart” Textiles
Cathy Teng /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byRobert Fox
An early human invention, clothing functioned to ward off cold; as civilization evolved, clothes became fashion symbols. In today’s fast-changing world of technology, clothes can interface with bodily signals, sensing heart rate, pulse, mood, temperature, stress. Soon technology will revolutionize everything we wear.
In today’s fast-changing world of technology, clothes can interface with bodily signals, sensing heart rate, pulse, mood, temperature, stress. Soon technology will revolutionize everything we wear. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Taiwan’s textile and electronics industries are like two “Infinity Stones” in the Marvel movie series The Avengers. With the efforts for integration of textiles and technology made by the Taiwan Smart Textile Association (tsta), just as in the movies, everybody is waiting for Thanos to snap his fingers and make smart textiles a reality.
tsta: An integrative platform
“We’re still waiting for the wind to fill our sails, waiting for a genuine market to appear,” says Ray Lin, chairman of both TexRay Group and tsta.
The year 2011 was pivotal in the development of smart textiles. “The advent of the Internet of Things and the Bluetooth communications protocols made it possible for all wearable devices to share common specifications,” says Shen Chien-lung, chief of the Smart Textiles Section at the Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI) and tsta secretary-general. And today, with the introduction of 5G technology, information can be instantly transmitted to the cloud, turning smart textiles’ manifold possibilities into actualities.
“From now on a piece of clothing won’t be just a piece of clothing; it may also be a sensing system,” Lin adds. It will have sensors and circuits, and send out signals through a transmitter, which will involve algorithms. When the collected data reach the cloud, they will undergo big data analysis. Once those components are integrated into clothing, they will need to maintain their functionality through repeated washings. As one can see, producing a smart garment is no simple undertaking.
From 2011 to 2017, many textile manufacturers invested in research and development. In 2018, the Taiwan Smart Textile Association, long in the planning, finally became a reality. By integrating the strengths of Taiwan’s electronics and textile industries, tsta aims to facilitate inter-industry communication and develop a shared vision, opening the door to heretofore unimagined possibilities.
As soon as it was established, tsta forged links with the Taiwan Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association, the Taiwan Precision Medicine Society, the Taiwan IOT Technology and Industry Association, and Canada’s intelliFLEX Innovation Alliance. Another of tsta’s goals is to assist in formulating and promoting industry standards. In the long term, the association plans to help Taiwan’s smart textiles sector go global by forming an industrial cluster, and by letting the world know that Taiwan is the place to go for smart clothing.
tsta chairman Ray Lin says Taiwan’s smart textile industry is still waiting for the wind to fill it sails, waiting for a genuine market to emerge.
Multifunctional smart textiles can sense and acquire signals from the body, offering limitless possibilities in the field of sports and leisure. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Light SPA: Clothing for Tokyo 2020
According to the definitions published by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) in technical report CEN/TR 16298:2011, functional textiles, better known as technical fabrics or performance fabrics, are textiles designed to have a specific functionality.. Smart textiles are performance fabrics that can actively interact with the environment and react or adapt to environmental changes. Light SPA, founded in 2016, is bringing smart functionality to performance fabrics.
Using a unique polypropylene (PP) fiber developed by Tri Ocean Textile, Light SPA founder Tony Lee combined the 40-year textile-industry experience of Canvada Industrial Corporation, a company run by members of his own family, with ideas drawn from phototherapy to create products that found favor with sporting equipment suppliers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, netting a substantial purchase order.
Light SPA’s patented product combines two types of fiber, polypropylene and polyester, into a double-layer fabric. The skin-facing layer is made of polypropylene fiber, and the moisture-absorbing layer is made of polyester fiber with an X-shaped cross-section. The fabric uses third-generation (i.e., dual-layer) moisture wicking technology to draw sweat away from the body. Because polypropylene fiber has a low affinity for moisture, sweat that enters the polypropylene layer is quickly absorbed into the polyester layer, from where it evaporates into the air, thus keeping the skin dry and comfortable without losing heat. This “anti-chill” function makes the fabric feel cool to the skin while retaining warmth.
After witnessing the successful use of phototherapy at National Taiwan University Hospital’s Burn Center, Tony Lee hit on the idea of developing phototherapeutic clothing that would block ultraviolet rays but let through visible sunlight beneficial to the skin. Working with the principle of fluorescence, the fibers in the polyester layer of the fabric are dyed with fluorescent dye, because fluorescence converts the sun’s rays into light that’s good for the skin. Lee adopted the slogan “Intense Pulsed Light for active people,” promoting the product as a spa treatment for the skin.
While explaining the fabric’s multiple uses, Lee notes that the wicking function is what most interested Japanese manufacturers. As comfort is the first thing people look for in clothing, Lee’s innovation will do Taiwan proud at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Tony Lee brought phototherapy into the smart textiles industry, setting Light SPA on a new path in the highly competitive performance fabric market.
2PIR: The world’s first smart triathlon suit
Since its beginnings as an importer of bicycle and fishing tackle components, Sunstar Taiwan Enterprises has been in the sports and leisure business for nearly 60 years. Familiarity with the market, command of distribution channels, and an understanding of consumer needs are the company’s strengths. Sunstar also believes that comfort should be the first consideration in developing smart clothing.
Heart rate monitors are sports accessories often used by athletes and coaches to record data to aid in training. However, traditional monitors that strap across the chest can affect athletes’ movements and coordination, and measurements are often unreliable.
Sunstar understands users’ needs and happened to learn that the conductive synthetic yarns developed by the Taiwan Textile Research Institute can be used to collect signals from the body. Company president Peter Chou thought that when used to measure heart rates, these fabrics would be more accurate than chest-strap or optical heart rate monitors.
Since entering the market with its 2PIR brand (pronounced “2˘r”), Sunstar has developed the world’s first smart triathlon suit with heart rate monitoring function.
Lots of medical terms start popping up as we talk—in developing its 2PIR line, Sunstar has crossed over from the sports and leisure business into textiles, and from there into the field of medicine. This intrepid spirit is a testament to Peter Chou’s instructions to his colleagues to create “high-end” products. Assistant manager Dabo Ku proudly notes that the heart-rate data registered by Sunstar’s triathlon suit shows an accuracy of up to 99.3% when compared with results produced by medical-grade instruments.
Sunstar handled the R&D and design from start to finish. The company has patented its process for integrating elastic fabric electrodes into garments, to solve the problem of stably transmitting signals under differing conditions. It took a great deal of time and effort by R&D personnel to achieve satisfactory results.
Taiwan’s textile industrial cluster is completely self-reliant: all necessary materials can be “Made in Taiwan.” By combining its strengths with the efficiency of Taiwan’s fully developed industrial chain and its access to other manufacturers through tsta, Sunstar produces triathlete smartwear that embodies the advantages of an integrated supply chain.
TENS smart leggings, Sunstar’s next upcoming smartwear product, can measure calf muscle strength and lactic acid accumulation, providing useful information to athletes. What’s more, the low-frequency massage function built into the leggings can release muscle tightness. These examples further illustrate the irreplaceable value of products that Taiwan’s smart textile industry has created based on user needs and circumstances.
This fabric’s wicking function found favor with Japanese suppliers to the 2020 Olympics. The innovation will do Taiwan proud at the Tokyo games.
Originally a bicycle parts importer, Peter Chou is blazing new trails in the sports and leisure industry with his 2PIR brand. The brand name—based on 2πr, the formula for calculating the circumference of a circle—symbolizes the wheels of a bicycle moving forward to explore uncharted territory.
Nadia Kang is an indefatigable ambassador for Taiwan’s smart textiles. In 2019, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry invited AiQ to take part in “Wired to Wear,” an international exhibition of wearable technology.
AiQ: Smart textiles solutions
It’s not easy to get to meet with Nadia Kang, AiQ Smart Clothing Inc.’s chief marketing officer—most of the time she’s jetting to and from exhibitions in various parts of the world.
Founded in 2009, AiQ got into the smart clothing arena early on. Its parent company, TexRay Industrial Co., Ltd., provides a complete vertically integrated supply chain. Using resources available within the group, such as the stainless-steel fibers developed by King’s Metal Fiber Technologies, another TexRay subsidiary, AiQ embarked on related R&D before the conditions for a market to develop had fully emerged.
Unlike other businesses that focus mainly on product development, “AiQ doesn’t manufacture just one item,” Kang states repeatedly. “Clothes are just a vehicle for technology. We see clothing as a link between people and devices, a human‡machine interface.”
Most Taiwanese manufacturers operate within the worldwide “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) supply chain. AiQ is one of the few to go the “original brand manufacturer” (OBM) route. Delivering integrated solutions is AiQ’s strategy: integrating software and hardware, as well as front-end and back-end functions, through a fully vertically integrated service offering. “AiQ is a technology brand; if you can imagine ‘Intel Inside,’ then we are ‘AiQ Inside,’” Kang explains.
That’s why AiQ advertises worldwide and is present at all major international exhibitions. Mention smart fabrics anywhere in the world today, and people will think of AiQ; mention AiQ, and they’ll think of Taiwan.
Nadia Kang’s remarks reveal her quiet excitement and pride in her company’s achievements. In 2019, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry invited AiQ to participate in “Wired to Wear,” an exhibition featuring more than a hundred creative innovations from brands, designers, engineers and artists from 15 countries and regions. Included were demonstrations together with NASA, Google and other high-profile organizations. AiQ was invited to showcase its latest motion capture technology, cementing its standing in the world of smart textiles.
After talking with Taiwan’s smart textile manufacturers, something that TexRay chairperson Ray Lin said comes clearly to mind: “It’s not that Taiwan has so many advantages; it’s just that when the smart textile market opens up, Taiwan companies will be right there.”
Combining textiles with electronics, Taiwan’s smart textiles industry is expected to boom. The photo shows a triathlon team in Nantou County training in 2PIR triathlon suits.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama