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The E-textiles Journey from Heated Clothing to Monitoring Astronauts: IDTechEx Asks, What’s Next?

Author: Dr Tess Skyrme, Senior Technology Analyst at IDTechEx

From blankets to towels to clothing to upholstery, humans are in contact with textiles for almost all their lives. Textiles, used for warmth, comfort, and aesthetics, can be combined with electronics to gain exciting new functionalities.

These electronic textiles, or e-textiles, have come a long way from heated blankets commercialized in the 1960s and 70s and have advanced to include state-of-the-art smart shirts that monitor astronauts aboard the International Space Station today. However, the road has not always been smooth for e-textiles, and companies in the field have yet to find an application that matches the success of textile heating.

Heated textiles bring new ways of keeping warm

Today, heating is still the most successful application of e-textiles, accounting for over 80% of the market value in 2023. From motorcycle riders to outdoor workers to people enjoying snow sports, heated clothing provides much-needed warmth in cold winter conditions. Heated blankets have also been popular for several decades, and interest has been spurred on in recent years by drastic rises in energy costs.

The success of heating as an application of e-textiles owes its thanks to the technology’s ability to provide local heating to the person in a comfortable form factor. Compared to alternatives, such as heating the entire room (costly), to hand warmers (only heats a small area), to simply wearing more clothing (bulky), heated textiles leverage the strengths of both textiles and electronics.

While power supply remains a key problem in this application, with users having to either carry a rechargeable battery or be tethered to a power source, the increasing availability of portable USB power banks is helping to drive heated apparel to consumers. IDTechEx forecasts a steady growth in heated textile applications to 2033, with a CAGR of 4.5%.

Biometric sensors in clothing collecting vital health data

One of the applications of e-textiles that has seen the most interest, advancement, and promise over the past decade is biometric sensing. Integration of various sensors into apparel can enable the monitoring of key vital signs, including heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature.

Investor interest in sports and fitness applications for e-textiles rose through the early 2010s, but several issues, including cost and washability, have since hindered major sporting goods companies from commercializing the technology for the mass market.

While smart athletic shirts can monitor key vitals for sports applications, alternative technologies, such as smartwatches, have since caught up and are able to replicate most of the biometric sensing required. Not only do smartwatches have more functions than a smart shirt, but they also have greater reusability and offer greater flexibility.

Companies are instead looking to monitoring vital signs for applications where the information is critical, from healthcare through to worker safety. For example, electrodes embedded within smart vests can monitor the vitals and heat-stress of workers in extreme environments.

This is critical data for mission control who need to know that the wearer’s cognitive abilities are intact for high-stress situations such as firefighting. Of course, the smart shirts can also be applied to studying how the human body responds to extreme situations, such as astronauts on the ISS.

The typical challenges that smart garments for consumers face, such as having to wear the same outfit every day or high unit costs fade become less important when the garment is a part of a uniform, or when the data is critical and cannot be replicated as easily or as accurately by alternatives.

Smart insoles saving lives

Another factor where e-textiles can truly leverage its unique strengths of comfort, softness and function are smart insoles. Smart insoles are applied for both gait monitoring and diabetes management applications. While other wearables can monitor gait, pressure-sensing insoles measure a person’s motion symmetry and force distribution, allowing medical professionals to assess progress in a person’s recovery from injuries that hinder mobility.

When combined with temperature sensors, these smart insoles utilize points of elevated pressure and/or temperature to warn doctors of potential ulcer formation. Remote monitoring of ulcers can help people with diabetes, who are at risk for developing non-healing ulcers that eventually result in amputation.

However, while the market for diabetes management technologies will be worth over $30 billion by 2033, it is unlikely that smart insoles will capture much of this market, leaving e-textiles manufacturers continuing their hunt for a runaway success.

To deliver a compelling product, companies must leverage both the advantages of textiles and the function of electronics through textiles. However, there are many readily available alternatives, including the use of textiles to simply attach devices. To date, key successes have been found in applications where the aesthetics are of less importance, where washability is not a major concern, and where the value is both critical and cannot be replicated by other means.

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