Smart sportswear spells opportunity for printed electronics

Smart fabrics are all the rage. Companies around the world are developing jerseys with integrated sensors and bike shirts with GPS functionality. One area especially shows great potential: printed electronics. For example, Wearable Life Science is looking for companies that can print conductive and washable materials onto fabrics.

Smart fabrics are all the rage. Companies around the world are developing jerseys with integrated sensors and bike shirts with GPS functionality. Market research firm Gartner predicts that smart shirts will be the next hit in the lifestyle and fitness market, much like activity tracking bracelets were this year, according to an article in The Guardian.

Gartner estimates that sales of smart clothing will go from almost non-existent to more than 10 million in 2015 and reach 26 million in 2016. So far, brands like Adidas, AiQ, Underarmour and Ralph Lauren have developed smart shirts for elite athletes and early adopters. Experts predict, however, that sportswear with integrated electronics will soon be a must-have for weekend warriors and the health conscious.

Wearable Life Sciences is a German start-up that has its eyes set on this market. Its Antelope suit just won the ISPO Brandnew award as the best newcomer in the active wear segment. Other than most smart garments that focus on measuring biological data like heart rate, body temperature and sleep cycles, the Antelope suit is a training device itself. “Its integrated electrodes amplify the natural muscle contraction that occurs during workouts and thus make every workout more effective”, explains WLS-founder Kay Rathschlag.

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A smartphone-size electronic steering unit, controlled by an app, activates the electrodes and determines the strength of the impulse. The suit’s technology is based on the concept of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), which has been used and scientifically studied in rehabilitation, physiotherapy, and elite athlete training. The suit is designed to enhance the training effect of athletic activities such as running and cycling and because the sensors and electrodes are integrated into the suit, it is now possible to take EMS training for almost any activity outdoors.

Wearable Life Science is launching a Kickstarter campaign to advance the technology from prototype to production. While all the underlying pieces are in place, there is still work to be done. One area in which Rathschlag sees great potential is printed electronics. He and his team are looking for companies that can print conductive materials onto fabrics. The challenge: The conductivity needs to be high enough so that the electrical impulses can be delivered in the desired strength.

Additionally, the printed electronic ink must be washable, stretchable, durable and comfortable to wear. Wearable Life Science has spoken with several companies who may be able to deliver a product in the desired quality but Rathschlag hasn’t decided on a supplier yet. Still, printed electronics are very likely to be a part of the design: “Wires printed with conductive ink would be the easiest and most desirable alternative”, says Rathschlag who also looked into using conductive yarns and other materials.

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Big companies are keenly aware of the opportunities in this market. DuPont Microcircuit Materials has developed stretchable conductive inks and materials that can be integrated into smart clothing. Currently, a silver-based conductive ink is already available while other inks and sensors are still in development. According to DuPont, the new materials provide a durable, comfortable, flexible, cost-competitive, manufacturing-ready alternative to electronically conductive yarns, polymers and other materials.

DuPont’s inks are applied to thin thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) film that is then laminated onto the fabric. The material still shows a strong performance after 100 wash cycles says DuPont. For smart clothing, this is definitely a first step but ink developers, textile printers and sportswear manufacturing are all working on new products and processes that can take the field much further. In a few years, smart clothing may be as common as sport watches.