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How Are E-Textiles & Smart Textiles Different?

By Special Guest
Megan R. Nichols, STEM Writer
January 10, 2020

The e-textile industry is growing by leaps and bounds, but there’s still a lot of confusion around some of the most common terms. For want of a set of industrial-standard nomenclature, the public may be confused by phrases like “e-textiles,” “smart textiles” and “smart fabrics.”

We’re here to set the record straight and look at how clothing and computing are about to evolve thanks to the introduction of these technologies.

What is an “E-textile”?

There are several definitions for “e-textile” in the world today. The terms stands for “electronic textile” or “electronically integrated textile.” Most definitions touch on the following qualities:

  • Electronic textiles combine traditional fabrics and fibers with electronics.
  • E-textiles enable the transfer of data, including sensor data on heat, light, movement, and other local conditions.
  • Electronically integrated textiles are designed primarily with wearable computing in mind, but there are many other applications.

Other definitions look at this concept from a slightly different angle: An e-textile is a circuit that is designed specifically for integration with a textile product.

Ubiquitous and wearable computing has long been a technologist’s dream. But where else are e-textiles proving useful? Current applications include health care devices, interior design, automotive interiors, commercial banners and signage, running apparel and outdoor gear.

There are two main types of e-textiles:

  • Embedded e-textiles have their electronic components woven together with the fabric components. This type is more like a textile product than an electronic product.
  • Laminated e-textiles have their circuitry printed onto a non-textile material which is then bonded or sewn to the surface of a textile. This type may more closely resemble an electronic product than a textile product.

What Are Smart Textiles?

ASTM International’s definitions makes a subtle distinction between “e-textile” and “smart textile.” As of July 29, 2019, ASTM defines a smart textile, or smart fabric, as a textile that reacts to outside stimuli (heat, chemicals, magnetism or mechanical stimuli) but doesn’t necessarily have an electronic component.

One example of a smart textile that doesn’t meet the definition of “e-textile” is thermochromic fabric. This is fabric that changes its color according to temperature. A smart textile made of the right materials could even change its structure and adjust airflow to keep the wearer comfortable as they move in and out of different conditions.

We’ll look at a few examples in a moment that should help make this distinction a little easier to visualize.

What Are the Clothing Implications of E-Textiles and Smart Textiles?

The ultimate goal of e-textiles and smart textiles is to create entirely new classes of products which can gather information, transport data, and communicate with the user, wearer, or an outside party.

Unlike more familiar forms of wearable technology, e-textiles and smart textiles don’t require PCBs or other cumbersome hardware components — the sensors and circuits are integrated directly into the garment.

This is just a short list of some of the ways in which e-textiles and smart textiles may have a revolutionary impact on clothing and other markets. Consider products such as:

  • E-textile: A shirt that takes regular measurements of the wearer’s heart rate while they’re exercising and pairs with a smartphone app.
  • E-textile: Small, light, and stylish wearable medical devices that monitor blood oxygen or other difficult-to-detect health metrics and sends alerts to a medical team automatically.
  • E-textile: A pair of shorts that deliver tips on proper running form based on the user’s pace, posture and level of exertion.
  • E-textile: A backpack for children that incorporates GPS and other location functionality into the fabric for safety purposes.
  • Sart textile: Clothing and accessories that change their colors or patterns based on the wearer’s condition, the outside temperature or the seasons.
  • Smart textile: A winter parka with a heating element printed onto its inner lining.

These product examples shed a little more light on how e-textiles work versus smart textiles and smart fabrics.

E-textiles provide “intelligent” features or use a connection with a smartphone or tablet to “borrow” computing power. A smart textile, meanwhile, doesn’t have this kind of intelligence. It provides either passive functionality or a function the user can enable or disable at will.

Your coat with the integrated heater doesn’t need your smartphone to work. However, your running shirt that provides information on hydration and blood oxygen content requires that you pair it with a second device to view the data it’s gathering and act on it.

There are several advantages of both types of textiles:

  • E-textiles make sensors and computers flexible, light, easy to wear and even fashionable.
  • The circuitry can be mostly invisible, giving the wearer a sense of discretion.
  • The user doesn’t have to worry about managing cables or wires — most circuits embedded in textiles are around the thickness of a piece of standard paper.
  • Fabrics tend to resist crushing and collision damage, lending their embedded circuitry some added flexibility and durability.

New Frontiers in Wearable Computing and Adaptive Garments

There are already e-textile and smart textile products on the market, but this is still a new marketplace exploring new technologies.

E-textiles will likely be in everything before too long as we develop new smartphone and computer form factors and build materials, and explore new ways to wring useful functionality out of our clothing, including monitoring our vitals. Then, there’s the world of discrete health care devices incorporated right into our favorite garments. There’s a lot of potential here, and we’re only beginning to capitalize on it.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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