Fashion

Smart clothes – A new challenge for the fashion industry.

smart clothes

We live in a new, interconnected world where smart clothes are a reality.
We are facing the 4th industrial revolution where Technology, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence are changing our lives, our way of thinking, living and working.

The fashion system in not exempted by this paradigm shift. On the contrary it is studying and seizing these opportunities in order to develop circular business models which create value and transform waste into resources.

#zerowaste and #carboneutrality are the new and indispensable goals of the fashion system.

These changes affect the whole supply chain.

Starting from the upstream with a main emphasis in the product design, it leads to significant evolutions during the prototyping and production phases. The result is a lean supply chain that is increasingly interactive, agile and interconnected.

The aforementioned characteristics are meant to optimise the use of resources, diminishing the wastes and have an economic growth, saving the planet from paying the most expensive cost.

Wearables could be explained as connected garments that impact our lifestyle positively, encouraging users to interact with the surroundings. They also include smart clothes, which result from the union between fashion and technology.

How can Smart clothes interact with the surroundings?

Let’s try to remember how many times you were out with friends and your mobile run out of batteries. And now imagine if you had been able to recharge the batteries using your t-shirt or your purse, would have you done it?

smart clothes, solar panel
Mobile phone keep charged by the solar cells embedded in the garment – Pauline Van Dongen

It is not fiction anymore, an increasing number of researches are identifying ways to incorporate miniaturised solar cells into yarns that can be woven and knitted.

How are smart clothes created?

The main challenge is to find a fabric made with electronics yarns. They are created by incorporating miniature crystalline silicon solar cells and thin copper wires within traditional textile fabric, providing a reliable power source.

The miniaturisation is a key process because it guarantees flexibility and three-dimensional deformability. In order to make it possible to wash and to iron the garments without reducing the performances, each unit is encapsulated in a special resin.

Ultra-thin organic solar cells - smart clothes
Ultra-thin organic solar cells

Smart clothes are able to generate energy in a completely sustainable way.

This revolution could be really disruptive if applied to the whole textile sector.
Just think of the application of small photovoltaic cells in windows, curtains or wallpapers to derive clean energy from the light.

What can we expect from smart clothes?

Smart clothes powered by solar energy integrate a whole series of sensors that can also constantly monitor our state of health and fitness. They can also prevent serious problems like vitamin deficiencies, incorrect posture or heart attacks, providing real time alerts to medical staff.

According to some researches, smart clothes with embedded solar panels, are able to generate 7.86 milliwatts per square centimetre with an energy efficiency of 7.9 percent.

Riken

Cambridge University together with Politecnico di Milano have also found a way to replace silicon in the creation of solar panels. Perovskite is a much cheaper material, similar to plastic, really flexible and light, capable of simplifying the transition to an organic or hybrid semiconductor, and reducing drastically the costs.

Solar powered coat - smart working
Solar powered coat

The next step is the elimination of lead, replacing it with materials which can guarantee an equivalent performance without creating toxicity problems if dispersed into the environment.

Another challenge is the development of a solar panel on which photographic images can be printed, disrupting completely both the world of textile but also some other industries like the one of advertising.

Why smart clothes are still not in the shops?

Of course there are some downsides when talking about smart clothes. There is still so much to do in terms of technological progress: the prototypes mentioned above are still in their infancy.

Smart clothes production issues still open

  • Technical issues about wearability. Now that the challenge about the size of smart clothes has been overcome, it is time to focus on the properties required by fabrics. Washability, flexibility, ironability together with high durability and long lasting performances are topics in discussion.
  • Costs. A technology to be adopted has to be scalable and the benefits should exceed the costs in terms of money, environmental impact and time efficiency. Nowadays so many researches are going on, but they have not reached the trade off between performance, aesthetics and scalability yet.
  • The cultural factor has also a significant impact. Are people ready to wear smart clothes? Do people feel comfortable and safe wearing fabrics embedded with solar panels?

In conclusion, we are closer then ever to become the Marty McFly of Back to the Future.

Marty McFly in Back to the future

It is just a matter of time and smart clothes will become a practical, sustainable and stylish reality.

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