Introducing the full Smart Textiles Value Chain Map
SMART TEXTILES VALUE CHAIN: A ROADMAP
Introduction: A complex value chain
The smart textiles value chain comprises multiple actors from three distinctive industries, namely electronics, textile, and ICT (Information and Communications Technology). This underlines both the need for cross-sectoral partnerships and how challenging it is to bring together competencies, energies and strategies based on three very different industries, viewpoints, and mindsets.
Currently, product development is predominantly driven by a technology push. Many products only reach the prototype stage because of the absence of (large-scale) manufacturing capabilities and the challenges related to the difficulty of finding the right long-lasting partnerships.
Figure 1 shows the full value chain map of smart textiles. The cross-sectoral value chain covers the hardware part, the software part, the textile part, and the end-product. Each part of this map is described in detail below.
This analytical map has been designed by SmartX Europe partners, putting together their knowledge of the different stages, nodes, and components of this smart textiles value chain. It aims to give a clear vision of the whole interactive pattern, but more specifically to identify the current gaps that slow down or jeopardise the successful development of the European industry of smart textiles.
Current challenges facing European smart textiles
In short, one can say that there is no clear absence of any specific element, but rather a weakness in many of them that comes from little collaborative history between the three industries concerned. Furthermore, the still insufficient development of volume markets prevents most of the large businesses that predominantly supply equipment machinery, chemical, and electronics components from dedicating much effort and investment to smart textiles production.
Starting with textile equipment manufacturers, one can observe that the possibilities for simply adapting the equipment to smart textile production are clearly running out. It is up to traditional textile businesses to sensitise their suppliers on the need for fully novel machinery. A closer collaboration with EU research centres could greatly foster the industrialisation of lab innovations to develop such necessary new machinery.
Another gap can be observed in terms of chemical supplies, which are key to the functionalisation of smart textiles. Of course, such inputs are mostly outside of the scope of the smart textile value chain (e.g. metals, pigments etc.). They are produced by large players who are used to – and keen on – producing and supplying very large quantities for traditional textiles, whereas smart textile businesses usually need very specific materials in limited quantities, necessitating the involvement of dedicated formulating intermediaries.
On the skills front, one can observe that in order to develop innovative yarns, fabrics, coatings or embroideries, most traditional textile manufacturers are lacking in some key competencies to use new processes and new materials, or design new commercial strategies to develop, manufacture, and bring products to the market. In particular, textile companies usually lack specific knowledge of electronics, which prevents them from being actively involved in scaling up the smart textile manufacturing.
Another crucial challenge for the industry lies at the assembly stage of functionalised items or garments. The latest design and CAD software, enabling the creation and alignment of cutting patterns for the textile articles assembly can be used, but very few examples of an automated, larger-scale production can yet be seen in the industry.
To meet the existing challenges, several highly promising fields are opening up to the industry. The most important one is the development of flexible electronics, which allow for efficient connections between soft material substrates and hard metal components. However, the manufacturing of flexible and stretchable electronics requires processes totally different from the traditional methods used to manufacture conventional rigid integrated circuits, like pattern transfer, solution printing, roll-to-roll capabilities and additive manufacturing.
Another recent promising development lies in chip platforms using hybrid architecture, combining a system-on-chip with a low-power coprocessor. This translates into significantly better performance and user experience, faster memory and launching of apps, richer graphics and user interfaces, and improved photo and video functionality.
Currently, aside from the technological developments, the main challenge in the area of silicon chip manufacturing, is their availability. The huge demand for chips has created a shortage that could be a threat to the development of smart textiles applications.
Another development would positively impact the very cost structure of smart textiles. The current high cost of traditional electronics manufacturing process prevents the development of significantly large markets for smart textiles and the successful marketing of many applications. Very promising are the lower costs and attractive new properties of organic electronics, constructed from organic (carbon-based) molecules or polymers using synthetic strategies developed in the context of organic chemistry and polymer chemistry.
Further down the manufacturing chain, assembling textile electronics objects requires the efficient integration of electronics into textiles at different stages (i.e. at the level of yarn or fabric) and the use of coating or encapsulation techniques to avoid removal of the electronics prior to washing or cleaning. Assembly techniques can be manifold, but presently they largely rely on manual processes.
Most challenging is the need for a robust integration and contacting technologies that can resist normal usage of clothing and the miniaturisation of power supply and storage devices. In addition, fully automated manufacturing capabilities are still missing and machine development that covers the entire process chain of the integration of electronic components in textiles clearly needs to be intensified.
The integration of electronics or textile electronic objects into garments or other articles (upholstery, bedding, carpets etc.) is made by ‘system integrators’, essentially SMEs that bridge textile and electronics companies by providing electronics-related expertise to textile companies and textile-related expertise to electronics companies. However, their limited production capacity implies high costs and restricts consumer markets to high-end ones. Two other barriers currently slowing down the development of smart textile assemblies are the lack of specific design software and of guidelines or even standardisation of components specifically dedicated to smart textiles.
In the area of software components, connectivity and platform building are two key elements of the successful development of any smart textile. Players relating to this node in the value chain are experts in building interfaces to connect different materials, processes and systems, establishing platforms and the respective interfaces, software and hardware, in order to collect data for the development of additional functionalities.
Data collection, management and analysis should not at all be considered outside of the smart textile value-chain. The smart textile community needs to work more closely with those dedicated players that can transform sensor data and processing data into data that is ready for use in software applications to implement the “smart” functionality of textiles.
At the next stage of the chain, one finds the Smart Devices or Smart Systems resulting from the smart textile product assembly, which heavily rely on the additional use of software. Each device is part of a network of Smart Devices, the so-called Smart Network. This activity represents a necessary strong link in the value chain, as data that is used in this Smart Network is in the cloud and is therefore linked to security issues, data analytics, data processing, etc.
Retailing currently represents a weak point in the value chain, as design and production costs tend to limit the market to a niche caring to the need of professional performers of various kinds. More generally, a related key issue that limits smart textile success is that the whole value-chain is driven by technology more than by market demand and does not rely enough either on market research or promotional activities. From the earliest research and development stages of any project, it is particularly crucial to ensure that the unique properties of textiles are indeed essential for the desired use case and cannot be more competitively supplied by alternative solutions (e.g. wearables, external monitoring etc.). This condition would often need to be more carefully validated.
Should the markets expand rapidly, smart textiles might result in a new kind of waste that could be difficult to recycle and would have to comply with European waste regulations. Therefore, a major challenge for the industry, and increasingly so, is the need to implement eco-design in the technological development process and minimise future waste. For the time being, one must admit the existing design for recycling principles for textiles or electronics rarely match with the properties of the combined products. Therefore, life-cycle thinking needs to be implemented together with the technological development process.
Throughout the smart textile value chain, businesses suffer from a regulatory gap in terms of guidance when it comes to compliance (e.g. testing, assessment, labelling), since parts of the regulation are either missing or are too highly fragmented. At the same time, stakeholders demand more regulatory control at the international level to ensure fair competition, especially between Asian and Western businesses.
More standardisation is also required to facilitate stakeholder interactions, e.g. creating interfaces between electronics and textiles, contacting, data standards, testing standards etc. Both regulations and legislation are needed to support the intended usage scenarios and prevent misuse.
The authors would like to stress that a true interactive and collaborative community needs to emerge in the European smart textiles industry. It’s evident that the key to a successful smart textile product is to make sure it looks, does, and delivers what is expected and needed by the potential end-user. Therefore, it is crucial in any smart textile development project to actively involve all relevant stakeholders as early as possible. This includes the designers, manufacturers, end users, experts on end-of-life treatment, as well as experts on service and application development. Building a successful community is of crucial importance to ensure all talents, capacities and knowledge work in better synergy throughout the industry.
© SmartX Consortium 2021
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