There has been a lot of talk about wearable technologies over the past couple of years, with much of the initial enthusiasm around the Apple Watch and Fitbit’s $4.1 billion IPO fizzling out as the industry struggles to move beyond fitness trackers and so called smart watches which, despite the hype are still essentially a cut down version of a smartphone worn on the wrist. By starting with the silicon the tech industry is getting things wrong according to a new study.
A recent report by Cientifica Research looks at the advent of wearables and predicts a $70-billion-dollar market by 2022. That’s good for the manufactures of smart apparel, an opportunity already spotted by Nike, Under Armour and other sportswear companies, but even better for the producers of 2D materials. Much of the added value of wearables is enabled by nano and 2D materials, representing a multibillion dollar opportunity. But why is this an opportunity for Manchester not Palo Alto?
The original wearable technology was textiles, which have been at the forefront of technological innovation ever since someone realised that spinning wool into a yarn was far more effective (and aesthetically appealing) than draping an animal skin over themselves. The industrial revolution, as any school child will know, was all about better faster and cheaper production of textiles with advances such as the invention of the flying shuttle Crompton’s Mule and the Spinning Jenny transforming what was a cottage industry into an initially water powered then steam-powered industrial process.
The textile industry also played a part in driving the chemical industry, from the enthusiastic uptake of synthetic dyes in the late 19th century to the application of polymers such as nylon in the mid 20th. So it was no surprise to see the textile industry being one of the early adopters of nanotechnology fifteen years ago, with everything from stain resistant trousers to antibacterial socks finding their way to market far faster and in greater volumes than any other application. In fact for a long time, the textile industry represented almost 100% of the commercial revenue from nanotechnologies.
As a result, I have spent a long time working with textile producers looking at everything from coatings to biomedical monitors, but the last year has seen an upswing of interest in the use of textiles themselves as a sensor. While the idea is nothing new, companies have been working on integrating OLEDs with fibres to create light and a wide variety of nano- and non nano- materials to make fibres conductive, none of the technology has been remotely scalable or cost effective.
That all is changing with the advent of 2D materials such as graphene and boron nitride, materials with remarkable properties at ever decreasing prices (unlike carbon nanotubes). Despite being promoted as the perfect material for bendable stretchable smart phones, the same properties make 2D materials eminently suitable for integration with textiles in an ever growing number of applications. Applications being explored include the direct incorporation of flexible batteries, strain sensors and biomedical monitoring into textiles, either as part of the production process or as a coating. Coupled with the ease with which 2D materials can be incorporated into inks and the lack of any adverse toxicological data there are an increasing number of opportunities.
Rather than cramming ever more complex sensors onto a smartphone or wristband, simple low power sensors created as part of the apparel manufacturing process will be the next technology with the ability to create a new opportunity for software developers to collate and analyse the vast amounts of real-time data collected.
Once the garment takes care of the sensing, smart phones can simply be used to do the processing. There’s no need to wear something on your hip or wrist if the garment is already supplying the data. Given the potential value of wearables, there’s no reason why cities combining technology and textiles such as Manchester, Leeds and Huddersfield can’t be at the forefront of a new industrial revolution.