TT: Can you explain how Chemical Vapor Deposition technology works and how it enables Soliyarn to create textiles with heating, sensing, and liquid repellent functionalities?
Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) technology is not new, having been used in the industry since the 1990s. It is commonly employed in the glass and semiconductor industries for almost all coating processes. These coatings must be extremely precise and robust, lasting for an extended time and maintaining efficacy.
The basic principle of CVD is to create a vacuum chamber, usually made of stainless steel, where the process occurs. Inside this chamber, a substrate like glass or metal is combined passed through under ultra-high vacuum while precursors, typically metal oxides are introduced to form a think durable coating on the surface. However, Soliyarn’s modified CVD process uses minimal vacuum and organic precursors, typically monomers. Within the Soliyarn vacuum or process chamber, the monomers interact with each other, forming polymers. Instead of making a solution prior and applying it to a substrate, the coating is grown in situ on the substrate as it moves through the chamber. This reduces steps and creates a more robust coating.
Soliyarn’s patented invention has adapted CVD technology for textiles and other soft substrates like PTFE films, tapes, and thin plastics. Traditional ultra-high vacuum techniques would not work for these soft substrates, as they would deform under such low pressure. Also, achieving ultra-high vacuum requires a lengthy process, slowing down throughput.
In contrast, Soliyarn uses medium vacuum, avoiding the need for a massive infrastructure like those found in glass or semiconductor factories. This approach allows for a throughput of 30 metres per minute, making it suitable for the cost-sensitive textile market. By avoiding ultra-high vacuum, the technology can handle textiles and other substrates without deformation.
Soliyarn’s uniqueness lies in this ability to combine the robustness of CVD with the needs of the textile industry. Currently, conductive, waterproof and some dyeing techniques are being produced, but virtually anything is possible. The company’s goal is to transition all dyeing and finishing processes from water-based chemistries to CVD, eliminating water usage and soluble waste, which have burdened the earth for hundreds of years.
The big goal for Soliyarn is to translate different types of dyeing and finishing processes into CVD, starting with conductive and DWR (Durable Water Repellent). This strategic adaptation of CVD to textiles is aimed at moving the industry towards a more sustainable and innovative future.
TT: What sets Soliyarn apart from other companies in the smart wearables industry? How do your ultrathin polymers maintain garment feel, breathability, comfort, and performance?
Soliyarn sets itself apart in the smart wearables industry in two distinct ways. The first way is the method of growing polymers inside a chamber rather than using a solution bath. Traditionally, polymerised chemicals are passed through a vat and attach themselves as a solid layer on top of the textile. This creates an insulated, non-breathable layer that is akin to putting plastic on top of clothing.
However, Soliyarn’s process grows the polymers directly on the fabric. Since the polymers do not grow into the air but around the fibre and within the weaves, they develop hemispherically on the fibres instead of filling the holes and blocking airways. This method enables the maintenance of the fabric’s breathability. Even with extremely loose-weave cotton fabric, Soliyarn can make it water-repellent without losing the fabric’s feel. It provides water resistance without wetting the fabric, something that is currently unique to Soliyarn in the market.
Durability is also enhanced through this method, as the polymers form covalent bonds with the fabric. These bonds are robust and do not disintegrate with regular laundering processes. This makes the fabric both durable and breathable.
The second distinction lies in how Soliyarn approaches smart fabrics. Unlike other companies that rely on metals or inorganic substances like copper or carbon fibre, Soliyarn grows an organic polymer on the fabric, making it conductive. This approach avoids the alteration of the fabric’s feel, function, or form, which is typically affected when inorganic or metallic elements are forced onto an organic substance.
Soliyarn’s use of an organic polymer (invented back in 1989) to make the fabric smart allows the material to retain its natural feel. For example, a cotton shirt treated with Soliyarn’s process will still feel like cotton even after being made conductive. This characteristic is particularly beneficial for high-functioning industries like the military and athletics, where bulkiness and wires are undesirable.
Soliyarn’s innovation in both breathability and the use of organic polymers for conductivity is why the US military initially funded the company, recognising its potential to solve problems they had been facing for over a decade. These qualities mark Soliyarn’s unique position in the market, leading the way in smart textile development.
TT: Developing electrically conductive fabric from textiles is a significant achievement. Could you share some real-world applications of this technology and how it is being utilised in the market?
Developing electrically conductive fabric from textiles is indeed a landmark achievement. One primary application of this technology is the creation of heated garments for the US military. They initiated this use case and funded us, setting a precedent for its success in other markets. Given the military’s rigorous testing and performance evaluation, if the technology works for them, it is likely to succeed elsewhere.
Heated garments are currently being used not only by the US military but also by allied forces around the world with whom the US works closely.
The secondary and potentially larger market for this technology lies in sensors, predominantly within the healthcare and sports industries. Fabric-based sensors, created with our conductive fabric, can be stitched anywhere without the need for specialised technology. Even garment manufacturers with no understanding of electronics can incorporate our fabric into regular garments, and they will function as intended.
This accessibility is a major advantage of our technology compared to inorganic alternatives. These fabric-based sensors can monitor vital biometrics, such as those collected by smartwatches. However, our sensors provide more accurate data by being closer to primary sources such as the heart, rather than relying on secondary sources like the wrist.
Since our fabric-based sensors can touch every vital part of the body, they provide better data collection related to respiration, movement, and sleep patterns. Consider applications in sports like golf and cricket, where posture and movement are critical. Our technology allows for more data-driven training for young athletes, enhancing their skills in a real-world context.
This has vast potential in the US, where significant investments are made in sports and related studies. Traditional methods of data collection have relied on cumbersome wired electrodes and laboratory testing. Our technology offers a more accurate and practical solution, capturing data as the person plays rather than in artificial test scenarios.
In the medical field, the applications extend to older individuals with conditions like diabetes, where constant monitoring of blood flow, posture, and movement is vital. The technology can also be employed as a moisture sensor for infants and older adults. For example, if diapers are consistently wet, our moisture sensor can detect it and prompt immediate care. This timely response can prevent discomforts like rashes and bedsores, adding another practical layer to the range of applications for our conductive fabric technology.
Overall, our innovative conductive fabric could be utilised across various fields, from military applications to sports and healthcare, showcasing its versatility and potential in addressing real-world needs.
TT: What challenges did you face during the development of your innovative smart textiles, and how were these challenges overcome?
The primary challenge in developing our innovative smart textiles has been the integration of the textiles with the necessary power source. Even though the textiles are made ‘smart’, they still require a battery to function, which is a hard substance regardless of its form. Although there are now flexible batteries emerging, nothing is yet in production, leading to a constant struggle with soft-to-hard connections. Moving from fabric to a metallic or plastic battery-type presents significant challenges in ensuring that garments remain comfortable without bulkiness or placement issues.
We have managed to overcome these difficulties through meticulous design, but it is not without substantial time and development costs. An ‘end-all-be-all’ solution would simplify the process, but currently, each form and function requires individual design consideration. This slows everything down but is a necessary step in this nascent industry.
As the field develops and larger companies invest in smart garments, there is hope that advancements will come in components we do not currently control, leading to more streamlined integration. Examples of previous attempts by big companies, such as Google’s Jacquard project with Levi’s, Microsoft’s project with Tommy Hilfiger, and Cisco’s fan sentiment scarf with Manchester United, all came and went without further advancements. These rigid, cumbersome projects have not worked seamlessly with apparel designed for human body.
Yet, the industry is moving forward. In the next five years, there may be substantial progress, and we hope that our textile will serve as a cornerstone in the growth of smart garments. Our goal is not to create the end product but to provide the fabric basedsensors, heaters serving as the data collection medium. We aim to sell the heating/sensing package, allowing others to develop the interface, electronics, and potentially an entire suite of smart garments, contributing to an exciting and emerging field.
TT: How has the market responded to Soliyarn's products so far, and what is the company's strategy for expansion and growth in the coming years?
Soliyarn operates in various sectors, resulting in different market responses. Currently, our most mature product is the DWR (Durable Water Repellent) line, as there is an imminent need for this product. With Europe’s impending ban on PFC (Perfluorocarbon) products in 2025 and the US following suit, stalwarts like The North Face, Patagonia, Columbia will not be able to sell their existing products in Europe. Many companies are aiming to eliminate PFC by 2024, but no effective replacement for fluorinated chemistry has been found, despite billions of dollars spent on research.
This situation provides an opportunity for Soliyarn. We have already begun R&D with major brands in both Europe and America, including high-end and large-volume mid-end brands. While I cannot reveal specific names due to confidentiality agreements, these projects have been completed, and the companies are thrilled with the results. Our production facility will go live in the next couple of months, and we will commence selling the DWR fabric.
The path to commercialisation here is faster because the supply chain is already prepared, and the industry must comply with regulations demanding a change to safer chemistry. This will likely be our first product to hit the market, and it is ready for immediate adoption.
As for our smart textile line, the primary focus has been on the military, as they have both tested and expressed a need for the technology. We plan to begin selling to military clients and, once established, repurpose the designs for the commercial market within a couple of years.
The smart textile market still lacks urgency, with many viewing it as a ‘good-to-have’ rather than a necessity. The exception is the military, who need this technology for survival in wilderness environments. Our strategy focuses on those who need and are willing to pay for our technology, rather than trying to create our own market.
This targeted approach, combined with our readiness to meet the changing regulatory landscape, positions Soliyarn for success in both the immediate and longer-term future. Our ability to move swiftly and align with market needs sets us on a promising path for expansion and growth.
TT: As a CTO, what role do you see Soliyarn playing in the broader landscape of wearable technology and the Internet of Things (IoT)?
Soliyarn is unequivocally committed to playing a pioneering role in the wearable technology and Internet of Things (IoT) landscape. Our ultimate aim is to develop innovations in smart garment technology, an area where there is currently no end-to-end solution.
Our R&D efforts are divided into two primary branches. The first is focused on fabric finishing with our CVD technology, which aligns with our sustainable goals. This technology is confined to the textile dyeing & finishing landscape, and it is where we have immediate commercial applications.
The second, and equally vital, division of our company is our smart textile IoT unit. This branch is solely dedicated to exploring new horizons in various markets, starting with the military sector, extending to the medical field and athletes, and eventually reaching the consumer market.
We envision a future where our smart textiles not only add convenience but also contribute to predictive healthcare. Rather than offering prescriptive solutions after health problems have arisen, our technology aims to enable early detection and proactive health management.
In this emerging field, we believe that Soliyarn has the opportunity to be a trailblazer. By maintaining a focus on both sustainability and innovation, we plan to shape a future where wearable technology becomes an integral part of a healthier and more connected life.
As the market for smart wearables continues to grow, several challenges lie ahead, particularly in areas such as user adoption, data privacy, and security. The main concerns revolve around the collection and privacy of personal data.
One strategy to address these challenges is to avoid connecting personal data to the collected information. Instead of storing specific, individualised data, companies can focus on gathering trend data that drives insights without linking to a particular user. Most users are not interested in specific details like their heartbeat at a particular time; they are more concerned with broader trends and insights that can improve their health or lifestyle.
However, even with this approach, challenges remain. Achieving seamless integration of smart wearables into daily life without causing discomfort or intrusiveness is complex. Past attempts, such as Microsoft’s collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, although exciting failed to commercialise because of an inadequate understanding of textiles and materials, resulting in uncomfortable products.
Solving these problems will require collaboration across various industries and specialties. It is not enough for one company to try to tackle everything alone; we need cooperation among software developers, hardware engineers, material scientists, textile experts, and governmental bodies. This collaborative approach is akin to the textile and garment industry, where different divisions or companies handle specialised activities.
In short, building the future of smart wearables is not a single company’s pursuit. It is a complex task that requires expertise in various domains. The key to success lies in fostering collaboration, specialisation, and a focused approach to collecting valuable, non-intrusive data. By working together, we can create wearables that not only enhance users’ lives but also respect their privacy and security.
TT: The fashion industry has historically been separate from the tech industry. How do you think the convergence of fashion and technology in smart wearables will impact consumer preferences and design considerations?
The convergence of fashion and technology in smart wearables is reshaping the way products are developed, impacting both consumer preferences and design considerations. It is an intricate process that requires collaboration from professionals across various fields.
In our prototyping team at Soliyarn, we have experienced this firsthand, employing a mix of fashion designers, textile engineers, electronics engineers, and industrial engineers. These experts understand their respective fields differently, and we need their combined and coordinated inputs to create a product that actually works.
This kind of multidisciplinary approach is essential for the success of smart wearables within the fashion industry. Large brands that wish to delve into smart textiles must recognise that a collaborative effort is needed to push innovation forward. In the past, we have seen examples of reluctance to adapt, such as in the automotive industry when tech companies ventured into online platforms. Car manufacturers initially resisted but later realised the necessity to embrace the change.
I foresee a similar trend in the fashion industry. Brands will likely create specific divisions dedicated to smart textile design, with teams comprising electrical, electronic, software designers, and textile engineers. This collective approach is vital because the integration of technology and fashion is complex. Even as a tech-savvy consumer, I find some advancements akin to rocket science, fascinating yet challenging to grasp.
The challenge lies in finding the right people and fostering communication within the team to translate technology into user-friendly, fashionable products. When these elements come together, the potential for innovation is boundless, paving the way for a new era of fashion where technology complements style without compromising functionality or comfort.