The killer app for smart textiles
By IDTechEx, Cambridge, UKElectronics Production / Materials Printable Electronics Supply Chain Wearable Technology fabric smart textiles wearables
Electronic textiles have hundreds of potential use cases, many of which are being explored by different companies
The development of new technology often creates new opportunities to provide value to customers in new products. It is common for marketers and investors to talk about finding a “killer app”, an application of a technology that is so desirable and necessary that it defines the core value of the technology area which enabled it in the first place.
Whilst most commonly used to describe successful software programs that helped to define the success of their underlying computer hardware, it is also used in a wider sense to capture key product types or markets which are vehicles for the success of the underlying technology and its developers.
Electronic textiles have hundreds of potential use cases, many of which are being explored by different companies around the world. Within and beyond these, there are many more specific product trends, with examples covered in the report including smart home, hospitality, automotive interiors, veterinary uses, motion capture, haptic suits, assistive clothing, and more. Sitting above these, product trends around physiological monitoring and active heating within apparel dominate as the two most prominent product themes.
So where is the “killer app” for e-textiles? We can consider the current state of different application sectors today to think about this question.
The most successful market?
To date, the most successful electronic textile product type is heated apparel, which generates around three-quarters of all of the annual sales revenue from e-textile products. With early origins in products such as heated motorcycle gear, heated garments have now been commercialized in a variety of markets including sports equipment, workwear and PPE, general cold-weather gear, and even some health & wellness products.
Whilst the core technology has been commercial and mature for more than 20 years, more recent innovations such as improved rechargeable batteries, new manufacturing techniques for heating elements, and improved washability via improved integration and connectors continue to move the market forwards. Whilst it is not the most glamorous, most advanced technology, the most funded or most hyped, it certainly has a strong case as being the most successful sector.
The market with the most potential?
The other of the most prominent product trends in e-textiles is around physiological monitoring. Integration of various sensors into apparel can enable the monitoring of metrics such as heart rate/ECG, breathing rate/depth, motion, temperature, muscle activity, and even through to things like urine or sweat detection and analysis. These metrics can then be combined to create actionable data or higher analytics, from diagnosing heart arrhythmias to monitoring worker stress, to helping optimize postpartum pelvic floor exercises.
Speculative R&D interest from leading players in sports apparel, medical devices, and technology sectors has combined with significant private equity funding to drive significant hype and progress from many startups and maturing companies.
However, the challenge comes in the complexity and variety of potential applications, each of which comes with its own unique needs, competitors, and market dynamics. The dream around “smart clothing” as everyday, mass-market products has been widely explored but remains technologically and economically impractical. Many players have moved from targeting sports and wellness applications to explore more formal medical approvals for products. This comes with additional costs and risks, as well as a prolonged timeline to commercialization. However, there has been promising progress on many fronts, and the long-term potential of this group of applications exceeds all others.
The most sustainable market?
Whilst the complexity and product economics are often barriers to the high volume production of some e-textile products today, these challenges also enable significant opportunities for companies with technical expertise to help develop and optimize bespoke solutions. This provides demand for a business model that sits between direct product sales and design consultancy, where a company can develop core capabilities in the design and assembly of smart textile products and can work with a number of different customers that may have speculative product ideas.
Of all of the companies that can be loosely grouped as e-textiles players, companies following this model are often those that have the greatest longevity, continuing for years or even decades of profitable or at least break-even operation.
Perhaps the most common application example is the development of worker monitoring and safety equipment or smart PPE for a variety of uses from industrial workers to emergency services personnel. These tend to be bespoke projects and rarely result in huge sales volumes, but can equally be very lucrative for the supplier who serves as both designer and product company.
Military applications also often fall into this category, with projects ranging from power and data line integration to lower weight of equipment, to options around vital sign monitoring, heat signature minimization, and a variety of other more exotic applications.
Perhaps the ultimate example of this comes in space; smart clothing has been used to monitor the vital signs of astronauts, with prominent recent examples from Hexoskin with their Astroskin product. In these applications, only a tiny volume of products may ever be made and used, but the majority of the value comes in the support and co-development with the customer.
The killer app?
It is probably safe to say that e-textiles in 2021 haven’t yet reached a level of commercial success for the “killer app” narrative to make sense. Just as Steve Jobs announced on its launch that the killer app for the iPhone was going to be “that it can make calls”, it is clear that killer apps are much easier to reflect on than to predict.
In e-textiles, the diversity and variety that exist within the industry enable a huge spectrum of many potential application areas which have been developed with varying success over the last 25 years. Recent efforts have also been made to develop the working groups and global standards that can help to move e-textiles from being a technology theme to being a true “industry”, with a global supply chain and cooperation that goes with it.
In addition, 2021 has seen continuing interest from some of the largest technology companies and industry players from across healthcare, consumer electronics, and the automotive industries, with some players renewing and reinvesting in new projects. This, combined with the industrious and pragmatic development made by players today within their successful market niches, and the general level of maturity here will eventually reach a threshold where mass-market smart clothing products become more feasible.
For more information from IDTechEx, or to download sample pages, visit www.IDTechEx.com/ETextiles.
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