Will your clothes soon be smarter than you?

Textiles have long been important for protecting human life, but new technology is pushing the boundaries of what our clothes can do for us. From enhancing our internet and electronics connectivity to monitoring our vital signs, groundbreaking ‘smart’ textiles have the potential to change the way we live and improve our quality of life. And with R&D tax credits, the cost of innovation may not be as much as you think.

A long history of innovation
The last century saw numerous breakthroughs within the textile industry. DuPont’s nylon was created as a substitute for silk, while products such as spandex and polyester were developed from synthetic fibres using computer technology. More recent innovations have led to the mass production of sports and active performance clothing, with products such as Gore-Tex enabling waterproof yet breathable fabrics. 

Now ‘smart textiles’ are coming to the fore, drawing on the latest innovations in electronic gadgetry, materials science and nanotechnology, which deals with the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. This textile revolution is already creating new opportunities for industry leaders, offering fresh applications for their clothing products and sharpening their competitive edge in the global textile market.

The rise of smart textile technology
Smart textiles are essentially fabrics developed with new technologies that provide added value to the wearer. There are two core types: aesthetic and performance enhancing.

Aesthetic examples include fabrics that light up and change colour. Some gather energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound or heat and adapt accordingly. Performance-enhancing smart textiles are developed with the aim of monitoring the user and/or environmental conditions. They can be used for athletic, extreme sports and military activities, adapting to external conditions to improve performance. 

The first truly wearable electronic garment to be released into the market was developed by Levi’s in collaboration with Phillips. Launched in the summer of 2000, the ICD+ coat included a removable wired harness to which a number of electronic devices could be connected.

During the following ten years, academic and research institutions around the world focused mainly on overcoming the maintenance limitations caused by the lack of integration. They searched for new technologies, manufacturing electronic constituents that were compatible with textiles and transforming the electronic components into fabric materials.

Even though early projects lacked commercial success, they demonstrated the potential of smart textiles and encouraged researchers to embark on similar projects. Much attention focused on developing new conductive materials: existing stainless steel and optical fibre were not compatible with textile fibres in terms of processing, mechanical properties and behaviour during normal use.

Manufacturing revolution
Combining cutting-edge science and technology with the textile industry is an exciting proposition, creating huge potential for new innovative products to enter the market in the foreseeable future. Whether by applying nanotechnology or integrating novel electronic components and materials, disruptive smart textile technologies could transform the sector. The next step is to achieve mass marketing capability using these new technologies, perhaps with a simultaneous push towards the so-called next industrial revolution, ‘Industry 4.0’, with increased automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies leading to ‘smart’ factories.

The application of 3-D printing technologies has already been applied to manufacturing textiles, with a bottom-up approach used in an additive manufacturing process, in contrast to the top-down approach typically used in textile manufacture. It will be interesting to see how these manufacturing technologies can be applied to the new breed of smart textiles.

Encouragingly, Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, recently announced funding for additive manufacturing, which indicates this could be an important area for the future of the UK’s economy. The importance of the textile industry has also been highlighted in another recent round of Innovate UK funding, for manufacturing and materials, incentivising innovation in textile manufacturing technology and the development of nanomaterials and smart materials.

Smart opportunities ahead
By early in the 21st century, textiles and apparel manufacturing were accounting for £250 billion in global exports, representing 6% of world trade and 8% of world trade in manufactured goods. This is a truly international industry, with much outsourced production. It’s also highly competitive. Continued innovation in smart textile technologies, development of new products and advances in manufacturing processes will offer new opportunities. Those who take advantage of these opportunities could not only gain commercially, but also have real impact on all our lives.

Investing in research & development (R&D) to keep businesses innovative and ahead of the competition  can be costly. The UK has some of the most effective tax reliefs available for this type of expenditure in the form of R&D tax credits – under approved government legislation.

Our specialist team of engineers, software programmers and scientists as well as specialist finance professionals such as auditors and tax accountants are experienced in claiming R&D tax relief.
Since the scheme began in 2000 our team have successfully claimed back around £150m for our clients across all business sectors with a 100% success rate. Please click here to check if you qualify.

Authors
Dr Tariq Ahmad, Innovation & Technology Consultant
Dr Ana María Cortés, Innovation & Technology Consultant
 

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