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EMINENT road show on intelligent textile

The use of airbags, ABS and EPS-systems are recent developments in which Microsystems play an important role. They show how Microsystems, that combine sensors, electronics and actuators, became essential components in the automotive world.  The integration Microsystems is further going on, mainly through the telecom branch.  For the future it expected this technology, combined with nanotechnology, would strongly penetrate the medical sector and our day-by-day environment.  Clothing or other textiles in our surrounding environment could be the most appropriate support material to embed these systems.

The opportunities for these so-called intelligent textiles were subject of the first EMINENT textile-road show organized in the Flemish region (Ghent, June 17th 2004), in co-organization with MINT and CENTEXBEL and with support of EURATEX and MinacNED.  Similar events will be organized in other European regions (Switzerland, Germany, Finland) in the 4th quarter of 2004.     

Why this interest for intelligent textile
The current interest for the integration of Microsystems in textile (the so-called intelligent textiles) is mainly driven by the microelectronic industry and R&D-actors (market push).  These developments can be placed within a vision of the future, where small devices interact with your environment wherever you are. Terminals adjust themselves to changing networks ensuring a high-quality experience. Hooked up to a Body Area Network, sensors can monitor vital life function and act if necessary.  This is the so-called ambient intelligence.  The interest for textiles from this ambient-intelligent-vision is based on the fact textile is ubiquitous and, as a consequence, can be considered as a very natural environment to embed the components of the future networks.  From a technological point of view, the entire of textile components, fibers, filaments and structures are an additional profit to realize these networks.  Of course, the advantage of the rather low production cost of textile cannot be denied. 

What is the current evolution for intelligent textiles
At this moment this technology must be classified as an embryonic one.  Current applications in clothing are mainly situated in the gadget markets (e,g. wearable MP3 player, a music jacket with integrated keyboard, syntheziser and speakers,…).  But the interest for this technology is growing fast.  This growing interest can be illustrated by the steep increase of submitted patents within this field since 2000.

Gradually, this technology finds its way towards the technical textiles.  Applications for protecting clothing (fire brigade, police, military clothing) are considered as very promising markets for intelligent textiles. Current research and development are related to the integration of thermal sensor, transponders, EMV-sensors or monitors for heart and breath control.  Specific R&D interest is related to sport and medical applications.  Current developments of intelligent training suits for top sportsmen (TNO-textile) can be a steppingstone towards high volume markets for sport recreations.  In line with the general increase of Microsystems applications in automotive, it is expected future integrations in this branch will make use of the technical textiles.  

Technological challenges
Technological challenges are both related to the micro-electronic and textile technical aspects.  Flexible, small components and systems must be developed in order to facilitate their integration in the textile products.  These systems must be durable (taking in account the maintenance of textiles, e.g. washing) and reliable.  Also esthetical aspects play a role in developing a successful textile product.

The textile R&D actors are mainly focusing their activities on the development of specific weaving patterns and textile structures and the development of textile fibers with additional functions.  R&D examples are the development of an organic transistor on fiber, or the PIN-photodiode on textile fiber.

From a Microsystems point of view main challenges are related to the development of a complex system in which sensors, actuators data processors, communication systems and energy management systems are combined in a very small unit.  Energy consumption of these systems must be extremely low.  So specific developments are needed for ultra low power wireless communication and data processing and for local energy generators and storage.  And systems must be safe and reliable.

Opportunities toward SME’s
Due to the current low maturity of the technology developments it can not be expected the field of intelligent textiles will create a high level of market opportunities for SMEs In a short term (< 3 years).  A second disadvantage for the SMEs active in MNT and textile is the fact the development of the intelligent products is very high, especially when new miniaturized systems must be developed.  In addition, the development of a full intelligent textile product needs a strongly interdisciplinary approach.  Very few SMEs have sufficient financial capacity to overcome this long period of high investments.  Vendor capitalists need to be attracted and convinced of the market value of the new products. 

In a longer term however the opportunities for SMEs within this field will increase.  It is expected, market opportunities will be created by a “spill-over” effect of the pioneer products.  By re-fining or re-tuning existing technologies (at lower cost), new applications can be found, resulting in the launch of new products.

From this point of view it is important for the EMINENT target group and the textile-SMS’s to keep an eye on the current, fast evolutions in the domain of intelligent textiles. EMINENT can play an important role in the dissemination of this information.