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Innovation Updated: 22 Aug 2017

Smart clothes could save your life

This expanding sector, specialized in health and safety, has a 22% share of the Spanish textiles industry and offers new competitive business opportunities.

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Technology has revolutionized many fields and textiles are no exception. Electronic and computer systems integrated into shirts and trousers enables functions such as locating and monitoring of user's biorhythms and could even end up saving lives. This is true for the Harken device, able to detect drowsiness at the wheel through monitoring drivers' heart rates and breathing. Harken is weaved into car upholstery (such as seats and safety belts), making them "smart" devices.

This type of fabric belongs to the technical textile family which includes those adapted for a specific function beyond traditional materials. Conventionally, they have included features such as flame-resistance, but with the advent of new technologies, the possibilities they offer are expanding exponentially. In this vein, there are already materials able to filter environmental emissions, act as a barrier against bacteria and even be part of a vehicle's bodywork.

As the functionalities increase, so too does the business outlook. According to the Cotec report released in July, the industry currently has a 30% share of total textile consumption in Europe and 22% in Spain. At a global level, technical textile production in 2010 stood at 24 million tons compared to the 14 million manufactured in 1995.

Despite the number of Spanish textile companies having fallen by 35% since 2008, the Cotec report states that the technical side of the business represents "a chance to open up expertise in services that are best suited to advanced economies". Laura Santos, an expert in Competitiveness and Innovation at the Valencia Textile Enterprise Association (ATEVAL), confirms that technical textile manufacturing in Spain "has increased" thanks to many traditional companies "transforming" themselves to become more competitive.

Growth is set to continue in coming years thanks, in part, to the possibilities offered by smartphones and new devices. Luis Gómez, technical manager at the Spanish company Sensing Tex, believes that the section will expand "thanks to the opportunities offered by portable devices"; a boom in these devices will increase the need for these materials. His company has developed a textile sensor able to detect pressure that could lead to keyboards "carried in your pocket like a hankie," he states.

Santos goes on to say that "there is a lot of innovation in the technical textiles field". A good example of this is the Lynceus project, funded by the European Commission and involving ATEVAL. The aim is for cruise passengers and ships to be monitored and located at all times through clothing and life jackets. "It would be possible to see whether anybody has fallen into the water or if they have health problems," states Santos. In this way, geolocation through clothing could also be useful in those professions where workers are exposed to low-visibility hazards, such as firefighters.

there is a lot of innovation in the technical textiles field"

Our expert believes that the important thing is the ability to make the technology profitable, citing the example of health applications such as thermochromatic onesies that change color as temperatures vary, thus letting mothers to know at a glance if their baby has a fever. Hospitals too could use this type of clothing to measure patient vitals from home. According to Santos, "It is more comfortable to monitor a person from home through a t-shirt and is a cost-saving for the hospital."

Smart and chic

Some smart textiles that could start to become a feature in our wardrobes include the still-to-be launched OMSignal shirt. Its sensors measure breathing, heart rate and calories burned, and sends this information to the user/wearer's smartphone to monitor his/her vitals. All this is non-invasive since the technology is camouflaged within what appears to be a regular item of clothing.

Beyond the practical uses of this clothing, adding technology also sparks trends. The singer Nicole Scherzinger wore a digital dress in 2012 with over 6,000 LEDs that showed the tweets posted with the #tweetthisdress hashtag in real time. The introduction of smart clothes opens up new business and innovation opportunities that the industry needs to get to grips with, since the next "it" gadget may not fit in your pocket but actually be your pocket.