Could fabrics be the next technology disruptor? The short answer is yes if the predictions and objectives of the AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) are realized. Speaking at the AWE USA 2019, AFFOA CEO, Yoel Fink, paints a picture where fibers act as the sensors and transmitters turning clothing and other fabrics from fashion statements to an integral part of an Internet of Everything world.
AFFOA demonstrated the technology by providing 6,000 custom bags to 2019 AWE attendees. Using their app, an attendee could pair her bag with her social identity, so that she could be identified by others at the conference by simply pointing a smartphone at her bag and that app provides a link to that person’s metadata.* Fink explains that the amount of information a person wants to reveal is up to her and is a function of the links she reveals. In a sense, it is a name badge with much richer information.
The bigger point of the demonstration was to show the potential for what smart fabrics can do and the applications are endless, including:
- Autonomous vehicle to pedestrian communication, whereby LiFi (see this video about LiFi and this one about its potential in autonomous vehicles) from an autonomous vehicle could trigger a response from an article of clothing. For instance, if this technology were embedded in children’s clothes with a signature, it could provide another piece of information to the autonomous vehicle letting it know that the object it sees is indeed a child.
- The ability to store energy and convert it into other forms, such as light (see the above video for an example) or vibrations. It isn’t difficult to imagine clothing providing directions via vibrations (left-sleeve vibrates, turn left; right-sleeve vibrates, turn right).
- The wearer might get “paid” for wearing a piece of fabric (or, in the case of the tradeshow bag giveaway, be given the fabric in exchange for wear an interactive message).
Fink terms this last model as a fabric as a service model, whereby instead of traditional consumer purchase approach, there might be an ongoing relationship that looks like a subscription fee or, perhaps, subsidized by third parties. For instance, perhaps a health insurance company would provide connected clothing as part of a health wellness program (like how some auto insurance companies provide per mile insurance and install a device to track an auto’s mileage).
This holistic approach, where fabric as the center of a platform and that is customized to some extent, means that textile manufacturers can elevate their product from a commodity to one that provides greater value-add. And this gets back to the heart of the AFFOA’s mission, which is to “… transform the manufacturing industry from traditional fibers, yarns, and fabrics to highly sophisticated devices and systems.”
Their efforts are helping existing U.S. producers of fabric, including 118-year-old Inman Mills (with plants in Inman and Enoree, South Carolina, respectively), the company that produced the AWE USA 2019 conference bags. Proposed by Fink when he was the director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), the independent, non-profit AFFOA, founded in 2016, is a partnership, which “includes 32 universities (MIT, of course), 16 industry members, 72 manufacturing entities, and 26 startup incubators.”
The U.S. Department of Defense is a key partner providing $75M of AFFOA’s initial $317M funding. Creating clothing that allows soldiers to receive and provide intelligence while being lighter, more efficient and more reliable is critical to the Department of Defense’s mission. And just like the previous innovations in military technology, this is sure to spur innovation in multiple non-defense sections, such as mobility to medical devices to consumer electronics.
*Their technology proved useful to this author for identifying his bag that he had left at their booth. A simple tap on the AFFOA app identified the bag.