The development and future growth of the smart textiles industry is something of a classic chicken-and-egg scenario, begging the question: which needs to come first - the demand or the technology?

When it comes to R&D around smart textiles there is certainly no lack of innovation, with prototypes ranging from garments with incorporated heart monitors to T-shirts that change colour depending on the wearers' mood.

But while some innovations may arguably be more functional than others, whether smart textiles are being developed for health or entertainment purposes, there are some general bottlenecks that exist in terms of getting these garments to market.

European Commission research programme officer Andreas Lymberis says that while there is much innovation happening in terms of smart textiles, he does not believe this sub-sector is growing rapidly enough.

In Europe, for instance, it is positioned very well in terms of public R&D funding - with the Commission having funded many smart textiles projects over the past 10 years. However, one problem with having easy funding has meant a number of advancements; but a lack of real-life applications.

"There is a need for validation and really finding the impact and value-added [properties] of these specific applications to the customers," Lymberis says, adding that one big barrier for the professional services industry in particular, is the lack of standardisation that exists for functional garments.

Sabine Gimpel, head of research management and marketing at Germany's Textile Research Institute (TITV Greiz), agrees that going forward with smart textiles there are a number of issues to tackle, including developing easy-to-incorporate systems for energy supply; standards, certification and security matters; high production costs; and security-related issues in relation to nanotechnology.

"The next-level problem is how to go from R&D prototypes to deployment, industrialisation and innovation...we need to look for the whole value chain to be put together," adds Lymberis. "The market will not adopt any smart textile that is not reliable, low cost, washable, or that has some risks of electrical risk. It has to be fully proven with regulations and tests."

Driving research
So far, low numbers of prototypes making it to market have certainly not discouraged institutions, companies and labs from working towards smart textile innovations across a variety of sectors.

An ongoing European Union (EU)-funded research project Safe@Sea, for example, is currently developing advanced personal protective clothing for the fishing industry, while the PASTA project, coordinated by Dutch nano-technology company Imec, is working in the field of large-area manufacturability - an essential aspect in bridging the gap between lab prototyping and the industrial manufacturing of smart textiles.

Meanwhile, Dutch electronics company Philips recently developed an LED-in-textile platform which enables effective and safe light therapies using a flexible, wearable pad; and UK firm Intelligent Textiles is designing a new electrically conductive yarn that could eliminate batteries and cable in British military uniforms.

Fashion designer Amy Winters has been fusing science and fashion together to create a new fabric - the 'polymer opal' Lycra - which changes colour when bended, stretched or twisted; and at the Alan G MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas, nano-engineered conductive textiles that can withstand machine washing have been developed by US researchers.

But while past EU-funded projects such as ProeTEX (which developed wearable sensing and transmission systems to monitor the health, activity and environment of emergency workers during risky situations) and MyHeart (which worked on the preventative and management aspects of chronic cardiovascular disease, through the application of on-body sensors) also showed much promise for the industry: "[These] projects ended with a couple of patents; high-level publications and some aspects of the integrated systems - sensors, patches, textile pumps - all novelty work which was not fully integrated at the end of the project to be ready for full validation," notes Lymberis.

Bridging the gap
There are certain industry players working on bridging this gap though. A European task group led by Belgian textile research centre Centexbel, for instance, was established in 2006 to look at the issues behind performance and testing, compliance with legal requirements, and how to ensure that new risks are not introduced though putting smart textiles on the market.

Another European initiative, SYSTEX, is working to synthesise ideas from independent smart textiles projects, to encourage research collaboration; facilitate technology transfers; enhance cross-sectoral synergies; and speed up the exchange of project results.

In Germany, TITV Greiz is also working on removing existing restraints around smart textiles, including the development of "reliable connecting technologies within the textiles and with external systems," says Gimpel.

"We are currently working on new technologies for the effective positioning and contacting, including the modification of embroidery and weaving machines as well as the placement technology for electrically conductive textiles...furthermore, we are developing and offering special tests for smart textiles, [and] offering a certification verifying the quality of new smart textile products."

So, while there are still many strides to be made in terms of the market and regulation, Lymberis says that once consumers and the industry begin to see the truly functional value of smart textiles, prototypes will begin turning into products.

"For chronic diseases in people who live alone at home, for example, smart textiles can do everything - they can help to communicate, help produce electrical stimulation for a paralysed person, help deliver a drug, monitor the heart and any other physical and cognitive parameter," Lymberis says. "We can do whatever we want with these textiles - but it's a matter of decision-making, and a roadmap to figure out where we want to go."