While fitness trackers and smartwatches are getting all the attention when it comes to wearable technology, there’s another area that’s rapidly advancing: clothing made up of smart textiles. Smart fabrics embark on a journey that will completely change the concept of ‘clothing for the future’, both globally and across the country.
According to Global Data forecast, the global smart clothing market worth US $ 668 million in 2020 will expand to over US $ 4 billion in the next 10 years. Therefore, it looks like the segment has the potential to even cross the bill mark of US $ 30 billion by 2040 with the help of technologies such as embedded sensors that track vitals, actuators that control fabric properties like stiffness and transparency, or conductive fibres that aid in communication or power transfer medium. The possibilities for smart clothing are truly vast and endless.
Indian start-ups in smart textiles are thinking outside the box
India is becoming a great potential market for wearable tech companies as more of the population is now putting health first on priority. As consumers increasingly look for methods to monitor their health and well-being, demand for smart clothing such as shirts, jackets, vests, socks and other categories seems to be on the rise. The large conglomerates may not be putting a lot of money into the concept of wearable tech, but Indian start-ups are taking it to the next level. With advances in technology and the slowly growing demand from consumers, India is providing market participants with growth opportunities.
Broadcast wearables’ fastest-growing brand SYNGAL
There are a number of Indian start-ups working to develop smart clothing, and some have already achieved success in overcoming the phase of initial adaptions. One such company leading the way is Broadcast Wearables Pvt. Ltd.
“Yes, the adoption of smart clothing has been very limited as compared to other kinds of wearables. The earlier versions of smart clothing had bulkier electronics. But if you compare offerings of today, technology has evolved by leaps and bounds; most of the quality smart clothing products today offer touch, feel and use factors, extremely similar to our regular clothing, so much so that at times, the user does not even realise that he/she may be wearing smart clothing and not the regular one. Although the earlier notion has yet lingered on, this may just be a contributing factor and not the primary reason,” Saumil Shah, Co-founder, Broadcast Wearables stated.
The company offers SYNGAL, a whole range of smart garments, such as Fitness T-Shirt with Navigation, that connects to a mobile app. Its other offering is the programmable T-shirt that can be controlled via a mobile app, allowing users to tap, draw or animate on the T-shirt in real-time. The Motion Capture Safety Cycling Jersey is the most popular choice for cyclists who want to be visible and safe on the road. The LED hazard lights are activated by the motion capture technology when the riders raise their arms, making them highly visible to drivers.
Nyokas Technologies serves both the civilian and defence sectors
NYOKAS is into technical textile-based wearables that have developed product lines that can be used in both defence and civilian applications.
The company has developed the ‘ZEAL’ wearable jacket, a textile-based wearable that remotely analyses physiological and biomechanical data in real-time. It is designed to protect the wearer from attacks or other life-threatening situations. The sensors detect any force applied to the wearer’s body and send data to a removable piece of hardware that analyses the data to determine if the situation is dangerous. If the situation is deemed dangerous, the jacket sends SOS messages with the wearer’s location to various numbers and emergency numbers, thus saving lives.
Also in collaboration with iDEX , it is working on a project for Indian Army , building a wearable monitoring T-shirt that analyses physiological and bio-mechanical data in real-time remotely to judge the health status with the help of ECHO or Bluetooth low energy and which can be displayed and analysed on Nykoas softwares.
Its R&D team is also developing an L1 & L5 bulletproof jacket for defence that can be useful to protect an individual from pistol bullets and AK47 bullets respectively. Moreover, it is also working on jackets for motorcyclists and forest rangers as protective gear. Despite the less acceptance on the consumer front, Co-founder Ajay Sangwan is quite hopeful for the market in next 5-8 years.
“Although there is still a long way to go, consumer acceptance of smart textiles is starting to pick up steam. Regarding the defence application, however, we have signed a few contracts with the National Disaster Management Authority to cover a few zones and are also in discussion with the Andhra Pradesh Police force for the trial runs. As there are more conversations and prototypes are created, awareness is gradually catching up. The civilian segment will also see an adaptation of this and implementation of it. We have a great deal of faith that in the coming years, high-tech, utilitarian apparel will take precedence over everything else,” said Ajay Sangwan, Co-founder, Nyokas Technologies.
Digital Fashion Factory’s intersection of software and soft-wear
One study found that women exposed to higher levels of magnetic fields and non-ionising radiation had 2.72 times higher miscarriage rate. In addition, children exposed to mobile phones both before and after birth had a 50 per cent higher risk of behavioural problems.
To address such a serious problem, DFF and AiQ collaborated with itie Knowledge Solutions to provide Anti-Radiation Wear Solutions.
DFF is a platform that combines smart textile technology with world-class digital expertise to provide solutions for health and wellness, high-performance sportswear, industrial apparel and edgy fashion.
One of its products is a smart garment that uses conductive yarn to protect the expectant mother and newborn from non-ionising radiation. This includes products such as office wear, blankets and baby wraps. The fabric is a blend of regular textiles and special yarn-level 8-micron anti-rad fibres whose effectiveness has been certified by Indian and international testing laboratories.
Swatric, the brainchild of the IIT Delhi incubator
Launched by IIT Delhi, this start-up is founded by researchers from IIT Delhi’s Department of Textile and Fibre Engineering, and is working to develop cutting-edge technologies to help the Indian textile and apparel industry commercialise new and competitive categories of smart and functional products.
Products include textiles with nanocoating, functional yarns and smart fabrics that can change their properties such as colour, opacity or even stiffness in response to external stimuli.
Applications of this technology include antibacterial fabrics, self-cleaning fabrics, UV-protective fabrics, fire-retardant fabrics, etc. Swatric is currently working to develop commercial prototypes of these products that can be used in all industries, including apparel. A more recent development involves aramid fibres, a class of heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibres. They have also collaborated with the Flag Foundation of India to develop advanced textile solutions for National Flag.
‘TURMS’ by BigPhi Technologies revolves around functional finishes
BigPhi Technologies is an angel-funded start-up that owns the smart menswear brand Turms. It is one of India’s first technologically advanced apparel and wearables companies and was awarded with the ‘Intelligent apparels & performance’ fashion brand.
It offers smart clothing with functional surfaces for various needs of the common man in everyday life. It has anti-stain, anti-odour, anti-fungal and cool-tech properties and can be worn 3-4 times without washing.
Considering the increasing immune deficiency, it has refined technology to add an anti-germ agent that is capable of protecting against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and a wide fungal spectrum. It can also protect against enveloped viruses like SARS-COV and non-enveloped viruses as well.
The companies have very well understood the pain points when it comes to design and utility; adopting new technology is the only way to move forward to make it more commercially viable.
“The active components in the anti-germ formulation contain fatty oil and esters that are natural and safe,” said Rameswar Misra, Co-founder and CEO of BigPhi.
There are a number of reasons why the above start-ups are foraying into the smart fabric and smart clothing segment, but all ideas revolve around one main idea of ‘why not hi-tech clothes, which solve some purpose’.
The first motive is that it can help an individual stay connected even if they do not have their phone with them. For example, if they go running and want to track their distance and time, they can wear a smart T-shirt that does all that for them. Secondly, smart clothing can help one stay safe. For example, if somebody gets lost while hiking, a jacket with GPS could help rescuers find them. Thirdly, smart clothing can help them be more productive. For example, if a doctor needs to access medical records quickly, an intelligent shirt could provide the data and speed up the process.
Technology enabling greater experiments for Indian Market
Integrating technology into textiles is not a new concept, but only in recent years has it become apparent that technology in apparel is maturing year by year and playing a larger role in ubiquity.
As technology advances, so do the clothing we wear, and smart fabrics and smart clothing are at the forefront of this technological revolution. There are a variety of different technologies being used in smart fabrics and smart clothing, each with its own benefits and applications. Among the most popular are Conductive Fibres, which are specially designed-fibres that can conduct electricity and are often used for heatable clothing or garments with built-in sensors. Electronic Yarns, which embed small electronic components, can be used to add functions such as lighting or sound to a garment. Memory Metals can change shape with heat or electricity and are often used in smart garments to create adjustable waist cuffs or hemlines. Pressure-sensitive fabrics are used to create garments that provide targeted compression or support. Thermochromic Fabrics, which change colour depending on temperature, are ideal for sports and everyday wear. Elastic Electronic’s cutting-edge technology allows for the incorporation of electronic components into stretchy, flexible materials and some smart fabrics can be equipped with various types of wireless communication devices, allowing them to send and receive data.
Commercialisation is a tough nut to crack, however…
The ultimate goal for apparel companies presently is to create clothing that is so seamlessly integrated with technology that it becomes an extension of the body. This allows people to expand their physical capabilities and interact with the world in entirely new ways.
However, a few concerns do rise which result in little hiccups. Rashmi Thakur, Professor, NIFT, Mumbai (India) discusses that consumers aren’t very keen on accepting a bulkier design and they expect it to be extremely user-friendly and sleek. She stated, “The earlier commercial success had minimal integration of e-textile into it and also had the hardware, an electromechanical device which had to be adjusted in the shirt, so that seemed like a pain point in terms of designs and agility for consumers.”
She then added, “Nowadays, businesses looking to commercialise smart clothing are studying the usage of flexible printed circuit boards as well as increasing the integration of conductive textiles, which offers a dependable way to include the electrical component into a textile structure instead of that external bulky hardware. In addition, the companies are looking into ways to reduce the size of the power source by using a small battery with a voltage of 3.3V rather than 12V and have begun to investigate conductive yarn, which they use to construct woven and knitted fabric before developing a garment. Currently, many labs in collaboration are working to create a self-sufficient power source that might be included in textiles. As the property of circuits changes with washability, they are also considering how to integrate a robust system and design.”
Given the complex affordability of the price tag of Indian consumers and the extremely complex supply chain for smart textiles, the goal of commercialisation however seems to be far off.
Businesses looking to commercialise smart clothing are studying the usage of flexible printed circuit boards as well as increasing the integration of conductive textiles, which offers a dependable way to include the electrical component into a textile structure instead of that external bulky hardware. In addition, the companies are looking into ways to reduce the size of the power source by using a small battery with a voltage of 3.3V rather than 12V and have begun to investigate conductive yarn, which they use to construct woven and knitted fabric before developing a garment. Currently, many labs in collaboration are working to create a self-sufficient power source that might be included in textiles. As the property of circuits changes with washability, they are also considering how to integrate a robust system and design. Rashmi Thakur, Professor, NIFT, Mumbai
Similarly there is lack of a one-stop solution provider for all raw material needs. The fragmented availability of raw materials is also a concern.
On top of that, different application categories of smart wearables have varying requirements for mechanical and electrical properties in their raw materials, which makes it difficult to find a need-based offering from these raw material providers.
And the most important perspective is the manufacturing side, where there is a massive disconnect between traditional textile manufacturers and traditional electronics manufacturers. The design process and business cycles are very different, which is exacerbated by the lack of integration of standards, certifications and quality assurance measures. Despite these challenges, there are a few companies that have built their own infrastructure for developing conductive textiles. The companies are focusing on greater R&D and developing products while solving the pain points of the prior-released smart clothing and focusing on how it would be more and more user-friendly with better integrations and functionality. Thanks to these breakthrough developments, it is possible that companies will manufacture these products on a much larger scale than they do today. Overcoming the challenges and aggressively adopting technologies, combined with a stronger supply chain and customer demand, can truly transform the simple piece of clothing into an interactive piece that could be further explored and enjoyed by Generation Alpha and Beta.