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Key Players Advancing Smart Textiles

Smart textiles – textiles made from intrinsically smart materials or those with embedded fabric sensors – provide a significant opportunity for materials and clothing suppliers. n-tech estimates that the market for smart textile materials or coatings and textile-based sensors will grow nearly tenfold in the next eight years, to over $3 billion by 2023.

Smart textiles are primarily being used in fitness and medical applications today, and medical applications provide a key growth opportunity moving forward. The trend toward personalized medicine and mobile healthcare monitoring meshes well with advances in textile-based sensors to measure heart rhythms, pressure points, glucose levels, and more. At the same time, smart materials and even sensors will increasingly make their way into the fashion industry.

Dozens of companies are vying for a role in the evolving smart textiles market, and the opportunities are varied enough that we expect many of them will succeed. There will likely be a place for many different types of business. We profile some companies that we believe will be especially influential in the transition to ever smarter textiles, from several important parts of the smart textile supply chain.

Specialty Chemical Companies: BASF

Several current activities by the giant specialty chemical company BASF suggest this this firm will eventually emerge as one of the most important forces to be reckoned with in the smart materials space, and, in particular, the smart textiles space.

BASF has been developing self-cleaning and antimicrobial coatings for some time. Of special interest is its recent strategic investment and development deal with startup SLIPS Technologies. SLIPS is commercializing "liquid-infused" slippery/omniphobic polymer coatings developed through Harvard University and the Wyss Institute.

Textile-based Sensor Manufacturers: BeBop Sensors and Sensoria

BeBop Sensors makes pressure sensors using proprietary technology that integrates sensors, traces, and electronics into a monolithic piece of fabric. This “smart fabric sensor” tracks important aspects of physical presence, including bending, location, movement and pressure. The company is especially targeting the smart textiles market, with medical and sports-related applications.

Unlike many startups of its kind, BeBop Sensors has attracted investment -- $3.4 million at the beginning of 2015, relatively soon after its founding in October 2014. We cannot say whether BeBop will succeed or fail in the long run. Still, if smart textiles are to succeed, the market will require companies like this to produce the required textile-based sensors.

Sensoria’s smart socks with textile pressure sensors that measure cadence and foot strike have attracted a lot of media attention in recent years, as well as venture funding. Now the company seems poised to increase manufacturing, with a 2015 deal with Cisalfa Sports Group, the largest sporting goods retailer in Italy. Cisalfa is now carrying Sensoria products in several stores and plans to expand to more.

Sensoria is currently targeting the running community, with an entire running system comprised of smart socks plus compression shirts and sports bras that monitor heart rate and tie into the same Sensoria app as the socks. Sensoria’s longer term strategy is to enter the medical monitoring market, and the company is working to embed its pressure sensors into orthotics.

Manufacturers of Functional Fabrics: Schoeller Textiles

Schoeller Textiles is an international company that has been specializing in functional fabrics and textile technologies for decades, creating fabrics for both industrial and consumer use. It is at the forefront of smart textile development, producing fabrics covering nearly all the functionalities that clothing manufacturers are looking for.

Schoeller makes several water repellant and self-cleaning fabrics with different hydrophobic coatings, as well as fabrics with hydrophobic coatings on the outside and hydrophilic coatings on the inside, to minimize perspiration stains while repelling external dirt and moisture. The company produces smart thermal materials to keep the wearer comfortable in various climates, with innovative fabrics including those with temperature control that comes from embedded phase change materials or from granules that are a byproduct of wine cork production.

These smart fabrics are in demand in protective wear, sportswear, and eco-friendly apparel. The company also licenses its technology to third parties to develop their own fabrics.

Manufacturing Textiles with Embedded Sensors: Clothing+/Jabil

Clothing+ is an influential design firm specializing in smart textiles and boasting influential clients such as Adidas and Philips Healthcare. Its expertise lies in merging the dissimilar manufacturing processes of the semiconductor and textile fabrication industries, which it does at its Chinese mass production facility for textile-integrated electronics. The company has been producing smart textiles for over 15 years.

In mid-2015, Clothing + was acquired by the contract manufacturing firm Jabil Circuit Inc., which should provide an avenue for more vertically integrated manufacturing on a large scale. Clothing+ has been focusing on designs that integrate printed conductive circuits into textiles and has worked with DuPont to develop manufacturing processes. But as conductive yarns and threads improve, the company may be able to profit from increasing interest in woven and knitted technical fabrics by helping to develop manufacturing processes to improve reliability.

Athletic Shoe and Clothing Manufacturers: Adidas

Adidas and its competitors will play an important role in determining the future of smart clothing with and without embedded sensors. These companies have taken a lead in functional athletic clothing and helped build a bridge to functional fashion for the workplace and beyond.

Adidas has demonstrated a willingness to bring its brand to the smart materials business and its success or failure in this space will be regarded by many as a test of how worthwhile an opportunity high-value-added smart textiles present. In the sportswear industry, where brand recognition is crucial, the involvement of a company like Adidas says a lot about future directions and may influence the decisions of competitors.

When it comes to intrinsically smart textile materials, Adidas appears to be developing some in-house. This was certainly the case with Adidas’ Xeno color-shifting technology, which it introduced in shoes in 2015. In 2014 Adidas introduced a second generation of cooling fabric, a technology that uses titanium blended yarn and 3-dimensional aluminum cooling spheres to quickly create a cooling effect.

Bridging the Technology and Fashion Design Industries: Ralph Lauren/OM Signal

OMSignal catapulted itself into the spotlight with its collaboration with Ralph Lauren to supply sensors for Lauren’s Polo Tech shirt, which sports the Ralph Lauren Polo logo. The involvement of fashion brand Ralph Lauren is important as a demonstration that branding in the smart textile sector is not limited to sport-focused companies like Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour.

In October 2015, OMSignal used funding from apparel design company MAS Holdings to launch OMlabs, an R&D group that will provide a turnkey platform to consumer brands. OMlabs is targeting well-known brands wanting to integrate biometrics into their apparel, whether the focus is on fashion, performance sports, or health and wellness. 

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