Imagine a world where shirts are made out of transgenic spider silk which is stronger than steel, ultra light and biodegradable, gloves have knitted tendons that make hands physically stronger and sweaters have supercapacitors woven into them that can store energy from nearby wi-fi. All of this technology is currently being developed at Drexel, and the project recently got a huge boost from a public and private sector partnership involving 89 companies and institutions.
Creating an innovation nexus for research, technology transfer and economic development is the fourth of six primary initiatives in Drexel’s 2012-2017 Strategic Plan. In the last few weeks, the university has taken a large step towards achieving that goal in the field of textile research.
The Department of Defense has awarded a $75 million grant for textile technology research to a collaboration of institutions of which Drexel will be the Mid-Atlantic anchor. The initial investment made by the Department of Defense was matched more than three times over by public and private sector partners, and the total for the project is now $317 million.
“Today, I’m announcing the Department of Defense is partnering with Advanced Functional Fabrics of America … to establish a new manufacturing innovation institute focused on revolutionary fibers and textiles,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced April 1 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“My dream is to have nothing hard on [the garments] and no batteries [in them],” Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab Director Genevieve Dion stated during a presentation at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in 2013. This hones in on a major benefit that the collaboration will afford. The combination of engineers, fabric designers, computer scientists and nanotechnology researchers will help create new technology such as supercapacitors and electrical circuits that can be woven into the fabric of the garment.
The project will aim not only to research and engineer functional fabrics, but also to develop novel methods in simulation testing and manufacturing. The scope of this project will ensure efficient and effective advancements in the qualities and abilities of our textiles as well as the economic cost of producing them.
Innovative technology is not the only positive outcome of this initiative; there are great economic benefits as well according to Carter.
“I know how important it is to [President Obama] that America keeps leading in manufacturing innovation, and continues to bring great manufacturing jobs back home,” he stated.
According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the United States is still five percent. The size and scope of this initiative will likely put a portion of these people back to work.
Researchers at Drexel University’s Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab have been actively working on fabric tech for years now. Their work has been focused on trying to digitally design and print garments, and then incorporate technology into those garments.
“In order to bring this old fabrication method [into] the 21st century we have to look at how it can really match 3D printing,” Dion explained in a presentation about the research in 2013.
Drexel will provide several contributions to the new project. These will include services from researchers in the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab, and will also be given in the form of simulation capabilities from the College of Computing and Informatics and the College of Engineering. Expertise from these Drexel researchers could help develop new ways to test these fabrics and greatly reduce the cost of their design and production by identifying problems before they occur using computer simulations and models.
“In order to get there we need to … solve some basic problems here in the wearable technology arena, and for us, we discovered that trying to get a grant as you know … that’s going to be difficult,” Dion said in 2013 when financial support for the research was not as strong. She then continued speaking about approaching highly applicable problems instead of purely creative ones.
This brings up a very important point of the initiative. These researchers now have the financial backing from the government to tackle questions and problems that are applicable to the military and medical communities. They also have the private sector support from companies like Nike to make advances in the expressive abilities of clothing and fabrics in the context of the fashion world.
The applications of this technology are varied and significant, and they fall into a few categories. In terms of consumer products, clothing could be revolutionized. Products could begin to come out that can mask odors, take photos, effectively cool the wearer and change color. Clothing articles could also have lightweight sensors that can track fitness data just like wristband fitness trackers do today.
However, commercial application is not the main intention of the project. The main reason that the department of defense is supporting this venture financially is for its potential military applications. The technology that could come out of this initiative holds the potential to lighten soldiers’ gear and monitor their health. It could also create fabrics that could be used in tents to collect and store energy as well as regulate heat. Ultimately, the advances could reduce the amount of fuel that the armed forces use.
There are also various medical applications that are yet to be seen. Researchers expect the ability to monitor health, and even envision sensors that could be integrated into clothing and have the ability to detect medical abnormalities.
Further reading about the institute and those involved can be found on the AFFOA website: http://www.rle.mit.edu/fabric/