Why not wear Digital Clothes?

We carry so much digital technology on our person all the time; it is quite natural to wonder about digital clothes. Technologists and manufacturers assure us that the field of printed electronics to produce digital clothes will be making significant advances in 2017. We have some indications as to what is to be expected.

For instance, there is the safety garment that Flex and MAS Holdings is planning on producing. The garment has LEDs embedded into the fabric. As of now, the manufacturers are working to identify the gaps in making fabrics and electronics work together. This includes materials, connectors, encapsulation techniques, antennas, and batteries (as power sources).

At another event exhibiting printed electronics, several manufacturers of medical and e-wear exhibited useful conductive yarns able to survive more than 100 wash cycles. However, manufacturers are facing a lack of benchmarks and standards for these yarns.

Project Jacquard, started by Google in early 2014 with a small team, has an aim to use smart fabrics for creating devices to recognize gestures. Google’s plan is to use standard, industrial looms to create fabrics with touch and gesture interactivity woven into the textile.

Along with conductive fabrics, there is also the need for flexible components such as batteries and substrates. At present, digital wearables need these to replace the rigid printed circuit boards that constitute them. Although there had been considerable talk of printed, flexible sensors in the annual Sensor Expo earlier, advances have been rather slow on these fronts.

For rapid prototyping, inkjet printers with conductive inks can allow creation of circuits printed within objects, including playing structural roles if necessary. Startup Nano Dimensions has demonstrated such a printer that prints circuit boards on plastic using conductive inks.

Very soon on the market, you can expect printable, solid-state batteries that can be formed. STMicroelectronics is already making these in a plant in Tours, France. However, at present, these have very low energy density, of the order of 20 mAh.

The US Department of Defense, along with a group of companies, universities, and research centers have funded the NextFlex center. According to Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex, the field of flexible, printed electronics is still in an embryonic state and flexible. Although some companies are manufacturing these devices and processes, there is no single large-scale manufacturing anywhere. Thompson expects things to change very soon.

For instance, NextFlex has a program to develop EDA tools for using conductive inks to print transistors and other discrete components on plastic. For this, they are partnering with Ansys and Hewlett Packard Enterprises. According to Jason Marsh, director of technology for NextFlex, although the printed transistors, diodes, and resistors at present are not substantial, the process is critical for reaching the NFC tag of below one cent—the ultimate target for printed electronics.

Over the last decade, along with the US, several regional and national centers in Europe have also invested substantial amounts in flexible, printed electronics.

China is also setting up its own research facility. According to analyst Raghu Das, the Chinese government is funding for equipment to the amount of $50 million for the facility.