AFFOA was created last year with over $300m in funding to develop US-made high-tech fabrics

AFFOA was created last year with over $300m in funding to develop US-made high-tech fabrics

With all of the change in today's textile industry, many ask what the future will hold for fabric design and innovation. Will today's fabrics increasingly incorporate technology to allow new qualities such as temperature regulation, colour variation, and communications? A key US technology initiative thinks so, as Robert Antoshak, managing director at Olah Inc, found on a recent visit.

The Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, is working to develop and introduce US-made high-tech fabrics that provide services such as health monitoring, communications, and dynamic design. In the process, AFFOA aims to facilitate economic growth through US fibre and fabric manufacturing.

AFFOA was created last year with over $300m in funding from the US and state governments, the Department of Defense, and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fibre-based products. At its new headquarters, the organisation supports an innovation lab, a start-up incubator, and educational facilities.

The initiative has received broad support from the US fibre and textile industries, along with endorsements from major textile associations including the National Association of Textile Organizations (NCTO).

New facility to speed US fibre and fabric innovations

I had the pleasure of attending the opening of AFFOA last month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by more than 300 fibre and textile leaders, along with dignitaries from academia, government and industry. 

The event featured introductions from US Senator Elizabeth Warren, US Rep Niki Tsongas, US Rep Joe Kennedy, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini, MIT president L Rafael Reif and AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink, among many others.

The institute seeks to create "fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change colour," said Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). AFFOA aims, he added, to catalyse the creation of a whole new industry that envisions "fabrics as the new software."

Referring to the principle that describes the very rapid development of computer chip technology over the last few decades, Fink said AFFOA is dedicated to a "Moore's Law for fibres" – that is, ensuring there will be a recurring growth in fibre technology in this newly developing field. In fact, "Moore's Law" was a recurring theme of the tours of the innovation centre and presentations made during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Made in Vietnam backpack of US fabric

Yet despite the abundant enthusiasm for the project, and support of a "Moore's Law" for textile innovation, problems remain for the organisation as it sets forth on its mission as an incubator of new technologies for the textile industry.

For instance, AFFOA staff distributed Vietnamese-made backpacks constructed of US-made polyester fabric containing AFFOA's new smart textile fabrics – a curious choice in light of AFFOA's goal of creating new US jobs.

The bags contained unique characteristics. En lieu of business cards, by using a special phone app, attendees could scan in their photos and contact information which would be embedded in the fabric in such a way that the information for be easily recalled. In effect, the fabrics stored information – or more precisely, information is stored in the fibres that made up the fabric.

For me, the backpacks were a missed opportunity for the organisation to showcase its new technology while underscoring its commitment to home-grown innovation and employment. Although the branding of various domestic mills was shown clearly via a hang tag, country-of-origin made-in-Vietnam labels undercut the home-spun messaging of the event.

Potential game-changers

Even so, I don't wish to sound too harsh; growing pains come with any new organisation and AAFOA confirmed it is working on this particular one.

Finding domestic sewing can be a challenge these days, and US mills and fibre companies typically export their products as raw materials for global supply chains that dominate the made-up sector. That's the reality of today's business. Moreover, AFFOA's business model is intentionally focused on fibre and textile production.

What is interesting for me, however, is if the group opts to pursue robotic apparel production in the future to compliment its fibre and textile technology. Together, these would be game-changers.

Country-of-origin quibbles aside, AFFOA provided a demonstration of its newest technology to utilise the properties of light to transmit data to embedded fibres in hats where music and recorded verbal descriptions of the labs played. No MP3s, phone or other tech devices were required. This is technology previously limited to the imagination of writers of science fiction, but will soon be in the hands of weavers of fabric.

The organisers also showcased a spool of filament yarn that could change colour on demand based upon a series of electrical impulses. Once again, sci-fi inspired technology that could hold great promise for textile producers.

Product-prototyping ecosystem

According to AFFOA, in order to enable rapid transition from idea to product, a high-tech national product-prototyping ecosystem called the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) has been assembled.

The FIN is made up of small, medium, and large manufacturers and academic centres that have production capabilities allocated to AFFOA projects, which rapidly execute prototypes and pilot manufacturing of advanced fabric products, decreasing time to market and accelerating product innovation. The product prototypes being rolled out during the ribbon-cutting ceremony were executed through this network in a matter of weeks.

The AFFOA initiative is admirable and will undoubtedly provide US textile producers with a wide range of cutting-edge technologies in the years to come. It will be a hotbed of technological development showcasing new technologies in fibre manufacturing, 3-D printing and fabric design.

Although the examples I saw in the innovation centre only used synthetic fibres in their prototypes, it will be interesting to see if the scientists and engineers working on the project will be able to incorporate natural fibres into their future products.

In response to this article, Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), makes the point that the backpack's value is overwhelmingly US – and reflects the way supply chains are likely to evolve in the future. Click on the link below to read his comments.

Why US innovation is vital to global value chains