There are several UK-based companies which have successfully integrated their smart technical textile technology into clothing and other consumer softgoods -- including bags and backpacks.
The most prominent companies in this field are Auxetix, d3o lab, Eleksen, Engineered Fibre Structures, EXO2, Fibretronic and Peratech. Many of these are small and were formed through close alliances with academic institutions. Products made by three of these companies are being designed to interface with software from Microsoft and iPod music players from Apple.
The companies products are being sold under well known names with wide consumer appeal. Brands such as Berghaus, Burton, Ermenegildo Zegna, Kjus, Levi's, Nike, O'Neill, Quiksilver, Reusch, Ribcap, Rohan, Schoeffel, Spyder, The North Face and Tommy Hilfiger are all using smart fabrics and interactive textiles from UK firms.
Smart textiles cover a wide range of technologies. Individual categories include wearable electronics, heat conductive textiles, textile switches and shock absorbing fabrics.
Eleksen is one of the most commercially advanced UK-based companies in its field, and its impressive financial performance over the last 24 months reflects its success. In the first half of 2006 its sales were up by 622% compared with the corresponding period of 2005. Furthermore, it has been forecast that Eleksen's sales will increase by as much as 168% in 2007, while the capital employed to support this growth will rise by 165%.
Eleksen has been highly active in managing its patent portfolio to protect its intellectual property. To date, the company has been granted 30 patents, including 12 in the USA, which cover its core technology and applications. Moreover, it has a further 38 patent applications pending, covering developments in soft switching and sensing technology.
Eleksen's components are used in a variety of segments, including consumer, industrial and military applications. The components are already employed in a wide range of end use products, such as interactive apparel, bags, backpacks and cases for entertainment and communications controls. The technology has also been incorporated into computer keyboards made from smart fabrics which can be rolled up and put in the inside pocket of a jacket.
Smart fabrics and interactive textiles are being used in a wide range of end uses, and the number of applications is growing rapidly.
* Textiles are being made from intelligent molecules to protect against injury in sports. During natural body movement, the molecules flow past each other at low rates of cohesion. But in the event of a sudden impact, the molecules instantaneously lock together to provide a protective barrier.
* Clothing is being designed with built-in switches or joysticks to control equipment for electronic entertainment, particularly iPods. The key components are smart textiles which are sensitive to pressure, and which can be stitched, stapled or glued.
* Researchers have developed a special conductive yarn which can be woven into a textile to produce gloves for controlling computers, games consoles, machines and other electronic devices remotely.
* A manufacturer in Scotland has developed a conductive polymeric yarn which can be knitted into a clothing fabric to keep the wearer warm. The yarn heats up when a power source is applied, either from a battery or mains power.
* One company has developed textiles which can change colour under tension. The materials are "auxetic" -- which means they become fatter when stretched, unlike conventional flexible materials.
* Smart fabrics are also being designed to protect against terrorist bomb attacks by absorbing energy. The most common application of smart fabrics made in the UK has been in wearable electronic control systems. Success stems largely from strong growth in the market for iPods and other portable electronic devices.
Intelligent fabrics are also being used in high performance sportswear. d3o lab's shock absorbing fabrics have been launched via alliances with a number of sportswear manufacturers for use in a range of applications -- including protective skiwear with integrated protective fabric at key contact areas (knees and elbows), motorcycle gloves, football gloves and shin pads, and protective headgear.
One challenge being faced by some of the more successful players is the rate at which they are able to raise additional capital in order to expand their production capacity and meet rapidly rising demand.
However, demand for smart textiles has grown so rapidly that a number of manufacturers have secured additional funding from private investors in 2006 and 2007 to expand their production capacities and further develop their technologies.
About the Author:
Smart Fabrics and Intelligent Textiles in the UK: Seven Companies at the Forefront of Innovation" was published by the global
business information company Textiles Intelligence.
The report can be obtained from the AKTRIN Textile Information Center:
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