Two companies are working to identify materials, connectors and techniques to fill in the gaps between making electronics and fabrics.
Printed inks and conductive yarns will get stitched into high volume clothing later this year thanks to a partnership from fabric maker MAS Holdings and electronics manufacturer Flex, formerly Flextronics International. The two demoed at an event a safety garment embedding 18 LEDs using materials they will start using later this year.
The two companies are working to identify materials, connectors, encapsulation techniques and antennas to fill in “quite a few gaps between making electronics and fabrics,” said Lenny Richiuso, a senior director in the consumer group at Flex.
Flex is testing several types and vendors of printed inks and conductive yarns. They believe wearables will embrace a range of materials depending on the distance and amount of power or data needed.
“We are drafting the matrix and creating the list,” said Richiuso.
By the end of the year, Flex expects to conclude testing of sports garments with integrated electronics that will stand up to regular washing. “In wash-ability we made some inroads and will have solutions soon, but as for drying it is still way out in the future before we can withstand those high temperatures and tumbling,” he said.
Figure 1: Partners showed prototype LED shirts Flex is preparing to make later this year. (Image: MAS Holdings)
Today MAS makes sportswear with electronics sewn into custom pockets. The upcoming products will have the encapsulated electronics made as part of the clothes, said Kireety Madiraju, a design director at MAS Active. “Users will be able to treat these garments the same as regular clothing and they will feel the same,” Madiraju said.
The duo initially targets a market of runners, cyclists and construction workers, later extending to first responders.
Separately, Flex is testing new materials, designs and frequencies for wearable, low-power antennas that could be available for production by the end of the year.
“Now that people are putting devices around the body, they want to connect them wirelessly,” said Richiuso. “A lot of people take for granted things will bounce off walls, but if we have a sensor behind the body trying to communicate with a phone in front of the body and the person is running in a field with no walls to bounce off from, what’s the right antenna,” he asked.
The two companies also are exploring use of sensors for heart rate, respiration, hydration and biomarkers for lactic acid and other chemicals. The work includes partnerships with sensor makers and academics.
In addition, they are testing “several techniques for electronic and apparel interconnects, including stitching techniques using specific conductive materials,” said Richiuso. “Today the standard interconnects used in wearables are snaps, they are simple but bulky and uncomfortable,” he said.
“We should not feel the interconnect in the garment,” said Madiraju.
Getting the new wearables to high volume markets will be key to overcoming the relatively high costs of the new materials and processes. “At this point, cost is a barrier for short term adoption,” said Madiraju, declining to share costs of the prototype LED garment it demonstrated.