Fashion statement

Paul Boughton

Louise Smyth meets the speakers whose presentations on wearable electronics were the highlight of a recent industry event

Among a variety of compelling topics discussed at the Research Innovation and Science for Engineered Fabrics Conference (RISE) in February 2015, it was the issue of wearable electronics that prompted the most debate – both in and out of the conference sessions.

Harry Zervos, principal analyst at IDTechEx gave one of the most interesting presentations, on the future potential of such technologies. Tackling some complex subject matter, in his presentation entitled Textile Integration of Electronic Functionality: Market Forecasts for the Next Decade, Zervos revealed some of the fruits of his labours in the analysis of the technologies and markets for flexible electronics. And these are by no means small markets. “With a wide range of products, from glasses and other headgear to arm, wrist, leg and footwear, skin patches and even jewellery, the device business is already large, at over US$14 billion in 2014,” explains Zervos. “It also has a large number of big brands involved, such as Apple, Accenture, Adidas, Fujitsu, Nike, Philips, Reebok, Samsung, SAP and Roche behind the most promising new developments.

“However, truly disruptive new technology, in the form of e-textiles, will also begin to establish major sales in a few years’ time and fashion, industrial, commercial and military applications will burgeon as a consequence.”

Zervos says that the issue of whether the consumer or the industrial sector will first embrace the next generation of wearable electronics is something of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. “The categories of emerging wearable electronics products are extremely broad (from fitness trackers and virtual reality headsets all the way to invisible skin patches and exoskeletons). Making generalisations is very difficult, as opinions even vary within companies as to the best strategy for their products. Many of the most well-known names are after the prestigious consumer market, and yet in many cases, the value that their products add could be much more useful in commercial or industrial applications. Some examples that come to mind are: if fitness trackers can achieve low-level FDA approval and then be linked to company-wide health insurance premiums; if virtual reality applications can be used to aid workers, from surgeons in the operating room to oil rig workers or even soldiers in front line duty; and if the technology can be used for improving efficiency and safety for warehouse or store logistics.”

Industrial applications

With regard to the industrial sector, Zervos sees a great deal of value in putting the technologies to use here. “The key advantages in the short- to medium- term in the industrial and military sectors are remote worker monitoring and hands-free instruction and/or communication. The introduction of wearable electronic devices will improve both overall safety and efficiency. Though we have just seen the end of Google Glass, many of the most promising applications that were being developed were around these types of applications, and this experience will be applied to product development in the future. There are also other, smaller smart glasses companies that are actively targeting this area.”

Specific to the engineering sector, Zervos cites the key benefits as being hands-free working, assistive applications (eg, automatically loading appropriate instructions, safety documentation/checks, or even displays from additional cameras), and better lone-worker tracking. He adds: “Further into the future, assistive technologies will become reliable and safe enough to be introduced within military and industrial applications. For military applications alone, this has seen hundreds of millions of dollars of R&D funding, and though it remains a long term prospect, assistive exoskeletal devices will emerge within a generation.”

One woman working on the future potential of such technologies is Professor Rebecca Kramer from the School of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. Her presentation at the RISE event was entitled Soft Active Materials for Soft and Wearable Robotics. Kramer’s presentation focused on how future generations of robots, electronics and assistive wearable devices will include systems that are soft, elastically deformable and may adapt their functionality in unstructured environments. She explains that, “The emerging field of soft robotics utilises soft active materials to address these challenges and mimic the inherent compliance of natural soft-bodied systems. As soft-matter mechanisms increase in complexity, the challenges for functionality revert to basic questions of manufacturing, materials, and design – whereas such aspects are far more developed for traditional rigid-bodied systems.”

For the uninitiated, Kramer is happy to put into layman’s terms exactly what the ‘soft robotics’ sector is. “To me, soft robotics is the intersection between materials, manufacturing and robotics,” she begins. “In contrast to traditional robots, which are typically made of rigid metals, circuit boards and motors, my work aims to develop autonomous machines made of all soft materials.”

When it comes to potential applications for soft robotic technologies, Kramer reels off a list that includes: search-and-rescue robots that are impact resistant and can deform to squeeze through cracks and crevices to aid in natural disasters; wearable technologies such as fabrics and skins that can give proprioceptive feedback to the wearer or assist with motions and prolong endurance without restricting the natural mechanics of motion; and human-machine interfaces that utilise compliance to embed safety at the material level.

“The main concept that I explore is the use of responsive systems that react automatically to changes in their environment (material intelligence), which will reduce the complexity of robots overall. As most of the materials my lab works with are new and not typically applied to these applications, we also focus on scalable manufacturing with responsive materials to make novel soft devices.”

Kramer’s presentation highlighted preliminary designs for engineered fabrics and skins that address wearable applications, providing both sensory feedback and imparting motion to the wearer. It’s logical then, to ask her where the human that will ultimately be using such technologies factors into her research. “The technology we’re developing is not at a readiness level to test with human subjects, but we envision wearables as a key application for our work. We are developing both robotic fabrics and robotic skins. Both of these ideas involve the integration of sensing and actuation within a planar, conformable substrate.

“Wearable sensing would allow a user to receive information about their own state. For the consumer sector, such  information could be used to improve positioning for health or athletics and to develop gesture-based gaming platforms. Integrated actuation may be used for injury prevention or rehabilitation, enhanced strength or endurance, and soft exoskeletons/prosthetics.”

When asked about the likely early adopters and where in the market they will come from, Kramer predicts a universal appetite for these technologies. “Wearables are all the buzz right now. I can imagine funding for development of wearable technology coming from both industry and government sources. We have not yet isolated one market or application that we would like to pursue, given the infancy of our technology.”

Kramer explains that she is not yet considering taking her research to market and states: “This is a major distinction between industry and an academic research setting. Rather than focusing on commercialisation, we are interested in expanding what is possible and redefining the wearable and robotic realm of possibility.”

With that in mind, what’s next for Kramer and her team at Purdue? “We will continue to pursue manufacturing, material performance, and system-level control challenges as they pertain to soft, active systems,” she says. “In particular, we believe that fabrics will play a large role in the future of soft and wearable robots, and could be employed in applications such as active clothing, active joint braces or wearable interfaces. “By treating clothing as a field of engineering, it can be transformed from passive equipment to active machinery, assisting its wearer by enhancing strength, improving stamina or preventing injury. As fabrics are already heavily integrated into our daily lives, robotic fabrics will be natural for people to wear and interact with, both minimising discomfort and maximising efficiency. In the short-term, our proposed work will enable wearable, dynamic fabrics that promote health and mitigate injury, without hindering mobility.

“We also envision future extensions of this work approaching fabrics that are responsive to external stimuli, fabrics that can self-deploy protective armour, fabrics that incorporate wearable interfaces and electronics such as communication devices, wire harnesses and conformable antennas, and assistive fabrics for motion aid and prolonged endurance.”

Product pathway

Bringing the next generation of wearable electronics to market – particularly to the industrial sector – is not an easy task. Harry Zervos says: “The road to commercialisation for industrial products can be more challenging than for consumer products, as it typically requires more investment towards a specific application for a specific customer. However, the investment is justified if the product can provide an overall positive impact to profits.” He also acknowledges another – not insignificant – challenge to overcome when getting products to market. “Many people have identified excellent solutions to specific problems, but often fail to consider the entire practical and social implication of their products. Products that tick all of the technical and financial boxes will still fail if the human side is not carefully considered throughout product development. We have spoken to many primary product designers who have recognised this problem, and are actively making sacrifices in performance and price to improve design, comfort, practicality and usability. These are qualities that it can be very difficult to put a number to, so the best products will result from a compromise between the engineers and designers.”

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