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Challenges, Best Practices & Case Study
By Katerina Kuzheleva
Smart clothing is not a new concept. University researchers (such as Joanna Brezowska at Concordia University), and laboratory teams (for example, those at Social Body Lab, and MIT Media Lab), have been experimenting with possibilities of clothing computation for more than two decades. There have also been multiple attempts to bring smart clothing to the mass market by companies like Google (Jacquard), Polo (Polo shirt), Tommy Hilfiger (Tommy Smart clothing), OmSignal, Athos, and Myant, among others.
While some companies continue to develop their products further (Athos, Myant), others have decided to pursue new ideas. The reality of FashionTech shows that it is fairly easy to develop a smart clothing concept and put together a prototype, but it is much harder to develop a product that can be available for mass consumption and be cost-efficient, durable, and seamless.
In this article, we want to outline the most common challenges you will face when developing a FashionTech product and the solutions you can implement to overcome these hurdles. We will illustrate with a case study about the technical challenges we faced through a project developed at NeuronicWorks and outline how we maximized results.
FashionTech Enabled by Recent Innovations
Recent developments, new technologies, and the availability of smaller, cheaper sensors have led to greater interest in experimentation with wearables and smart clothing. With the rising popularity of fitness tracking devices like Fitbit and the Apple Watch, companies are studying how to create more value for consumers by tracking and monitoring body vitals.
The diversity of new sensors is multiplying. Numerous sensors can provide useful data for health and wellness monitoring, such as heart rate sensors, blood pressure, oxygen level sensors, and even sensors to measure your stress level. These components are increasingly inexpensive to manufacture, making it more feasible to integrate into consumer products.
Another factor contributing to the rising interest in smart clothing is the growing acceptance of wearables and body sensors. Consumers today are interested in new tech that promises better health, wellness, and higher quality of life.
Smart Apparel Display ISPO Munich 2020
What’s Preventing FashionTech Projects From Going Mainstream and What Can you Do?
While there is a regular stream of new smart clothing projects, several factors still prevent the successful merging of technology and apparel that will result in a viable commercial product. After working on numerous clients’ projects and our own in-house product, we can highlight several specific challenges in integrating electronics and apparel.
Wiring: Finding a suitable wiring solution is one of the first challenges you will encounter. The most reliable solution for connecting sensors or other functional elements within a garment is the use of a wire. While there are different options available for traditional electronics, very few exist that accommodate integration into a textile and that are compatible with the textile’s properties. Even when a suitable option can be found, it might require an additional installation process, which ultimately raises assembly costs. Besides, since most textile-based wiring suppliers are located in Asia, samples are expensive or difficult to procure. We recommend finding a reliable supplier specializing in wiring solutions for apparel products and purchasing samples for testing. Some of the companies that specialize in e-textiles in North America include Bally Ribbon Mills, Weel Technologies, CTT Group.
OhmaTex conductive ribbon
CCT Group embroidered wires
Bally Ribbon Mills flexible wire
Secure Connectors: When designing a FashionTech product, it is essential to use flat, secure connectors to reduce the system’s bulk. Traditional connectors used in electronic devices might work for a quick prototype, but they are not suitable for apparel due to their bulky form factor. Smart clothing connectors need to be low profile, secure, withstand wear and tear, and be comfortable to the touch. Very few such connectors exist on the market, and those that are available are quite expensive for a consumer product. Most likely, some customization will be needed, which ultimately will drive the cost up.
Currently, few companies are working on developing specialized connectors for e-textiles and smart apparel. We encourage you to check what is available and test solutions within your system. Suppliers we know who are developing flat connectors for e-textiles include OhmaTex, Loomia, Fischer Connectors, and JAE.
OhmaTex e-textile connector
Fisher Connectors - Military grade wearable connectors
JAE washable connector
Power Source: For any wearable or smart garment to work, a power source is needed. Depending on the function and the type of the components used, the battery size could vary quite a bit. But regardless of the size, a battery must be there.
Most projects we have worked on required a lithium battery, which not only adds bulk and weight to the product but also adds an extra task for the end-user, since the battery needs to be regularly charged. Additionally, the battery can not undergo some common garment care routines, like washing and drying. The user must remember to remove the battery every time they decide to clean their garment or risk damaging the battery.
We recommend providing prominent, easy to understand labelling and care instructions for the garment and how to remove and charge the battery. Designing an easy way to access the battery could help to ease the process for the user.
Various sizes of Lithium Ion Batteries
Manufacturability: Finally, one of the most critical challenges smart apparel projects face is manufacturability. The first questions asked about a FashionTech product are how much is the cost to produce, and what would be the retail price. To answer these questions, one needs to have a clear understanding of how the smart garment will be manufactured, the steps for assembly, and have a set BOM. With most manufacturing now located in Asia, it might be harder to coordinate between electronics and apparel manufacturing, assembly, and final QA. There are no established processes yet, and very few factories have experience handling such products. All these factors make it more challenging to bring smart garments to the market with a reasonable price-point.
Perhaps you are at the stage where you need to worry about manufacturability. In that case, we suggest first defining your BOM—that is, all materials that go into making your product—and prepare detailed documentation for the factories. Select your manufacturing partners and work with them to further define the process in the most efficient way.
Case Study: TechNomad Project
At NeuronicWorks, we often work on wearable and smart clothing projects for other companies. One of the recent experiences we had with smart clothing is TechNomad – a smart jacket that enhances visibility for cyclists and pedestrians. Based on the challenges outlined earlier, we would like to share this case study with you and document our efforts to highlight the challenges we faced and how we addressed them.
The project started with improving the existing visibility solutions for cycling and expanding these features to pedestrians as well. The goal was to create a versatile solution for the urban city living that would be beneficial for cyclists and pedestrians alike.
Size of the PCB: We developed a small PCB and placed it in the jacket’s cuff to accommodate gesture recognition features. The PCB’s small size allowed us to create an enclosure that was seamlessly integrated. It looked like an integral part of the garment and would not be perceived as a bulky technology piece.
Invisible Design: One of the main goals was to design a smart garment that looked like a regular garment without the sci-fi or geeky feel. In this case, we used LED strips hidden inside the jacket, that lit up based on the feature mode and the type of command. To make sure the lights went through the fabric, we developed a unique integration method that involved laser cutting and adhesive bonding with the LED strips.
Versatility: The PCB was designed to support multiple features for cyclists and pedestrians. In addition to pure utility, we added a lifestyle feature—a glowing logo patch that is user controlled. The accompanying mobile app allows the users to customize the colour and types of light to their preferences.
What We Learned
Complexity: Combining different features allows you to broaden the customer base but also increases the complexity and the cost. In this case, adding a logo patch feature meant additional sections of the system needed to be brought up to the surface with more connectors and added assembly steps. We realized while the idea of having multiple features is nice, it can be harder to produce and assemble.
Type of Connectors: We used the smallest connectors available; however, they are not designed for use in apparel. These connectors, while relatively small, were still detectable between the layers. Ideal connectors in this case are snaps or ones with a similar design, allowing for installation directly on the fabric and connecting inside and surface elements in a single step.
Optimizing for Apparel Integration: During the process of integrating electronics with garment pieces we discovered that the lengths of wires have to be adjusted based on the sizing of the garment. In the manufacturing process, we will have to work with apparel manufacturers to identify the exact sizes and tolerances needed. The process of assembly must be developed and tested with the apparel factory, making sure the integration of the electronics is as simple as possible.
Washability and Durability of Electronics: Smart garments need to withstand standard garment care procedures, including multiple washing cycles, drying, or dry cleaning. While working on the initial prototype we were unable to satisfy this requirement. We are now focusing on waterproofing and durability, as well as overall wear and tear resistance testing.
We hope this case study provides a reference point for companies and entrepreneurs pursuing the development of smart apparel products. For more information about the TechNomad project visit technomad.ca.