Marty Ellis, of Inman Mills in South Carolina, checks a machine manufacturing fabric developed through AFFOA (Photo credit: AFFOA)

Marty Ellis, of Inman Mills in South Carolina, checks a machine manufacturing fabric developed through AFFOA (Photo credit: AFFOA)

A new centre tasked with developing US-made high-tech fabrics is officially opening its national headquarters today (19 June) in Cambridge, Massachusetts as well as unveiling the first two advanced fabric products – a "programmable" backpack and a technology that harnesses the potential of new LED-based lighting systems – to be commercialised from the centre's work.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, working on advanced 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 and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fibre-based products.

The institute seeks to create "fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change colour," says CEO Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

In short, he says, AFFOA aims to catalyse the creation of a whole new industry that envisions "fabrics as the new software."

Under Fink's leadership, the independent, nonprofit organisation has already created a network of more than 100 partners, including much of the fabric manufacturing base in the US as well as start-ups and universities spread across 28 states.

Most products that attempt to incorporate electronic functions into fabrics involve attaching various types of patches to existing fabrics. The kinds of fabrics and fibres envisioned by AFFOA will have these functions embedded within the fibres themselves.

A key element in the centre's approach is to develop the technology infrastructure for advanced, internet-connected fabric products that enable new business models for the fabric industry.

With highly functional fabric systems, the ability to offer consumers "fabrics as a service" creates value in the textile industry – moving it from producing goods in a price-competitive market, to practicing recurring revenue models with rapid innovation cycles that are now characteristic of high-margin technology business sectors.

From idea to product

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 new Fabric Discovery Center (FDC) headquarters in Cambridge, has been designed to support three main thrusts:

  • A start-up accelerator and incubator that provides space, tools, and guidance to new companies working to develop new advanced fabric-based products;
  • A section devoted to education, offering students hands-on opportunities to explore this cutting-edge field and develop the skills to become part of it; and
  • The world's first end-to-end prototyping facility, with advanced computer-assisted design and fabrication tools, to help accelerate new advanced fabric ideas from the concept to functional products.

Plans are underway to form additional FDCs in other locations in the country, with the goal of facilitating local economic growth in communities through advanced fabric innovation.

AFFOA has already announced the first two such FDCs: One is based at the University of Massachuetts at Lowell and the other at Lincoln Laboratory in collaboration with the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center.

Massachusetts backs US$10m Fabric Discovery Centre

Ahead of the pack

The first product prototypes were developed through the network in a matter of weeks.

One is a programmable backpack produced by JanSport, an AFFOA member, and made of advanced fabric developed through AFFOA and manufactured in South Carolina by Inman Mills in collaboration with Unifi Yarns (North Carolina), Burlington Manufacturing Services (North Carolina), and Granitville Specialty Fabrics (South Carolina).

The unique fabric enables the wearer to "programme" the pack through a smartphone app called "Looks," to associate and share information through the pack. The system can be harnessed to help students better connect on campuses, enable professionals to network effectively at conferences, increase access security in elementary schools, store memories and information, and even enable dynamic advertising and online purchases and commerce. It can also be programmed to notify its owner if it gets lost.

"This product exemplifies a future where clothing and other fabric products will be seen no longer as commodity products but as a service, similar to the way software is developed and sold," Fink says.

This approach will make it possible "for fabrics to take on a new role in the world, one where we receive high value-added services from fabrics." People often appreciate experiences and services more than goods, he added "and the economics follows."

The second new product platform is a technology dubbed "Fabric LiFi," which harnesses the potential of new LED-based lighting systems to broadcast data to any receiver within view, at extremely high bandwidths.

This technology could be used to provide highly accurate tracking and navigation in indoor locations where GPS does not penetrate and where tracking can be crucial, such as guiding patients within a hospital. The product might also help theatre-goers or sports fans learn details about the events as they view them. It might also form the basis for active safety clothing for cyclists to help prevent night-time accidents.

The system could also deliver digital content to users through this lighting link, without affecting people's perception of the quality of the light. For example, two people sitting next to each other at a sporting event could receive detailed commentary in real time, in two different languages, or oriented to fans of opposing teams, through optical fibre sensors built into a baseball cap. The same technology could enable soldiers or emergency responders to get data and imagery from a drone hovering overhead.

All these new developments, Fink says, represent "a major change in how we view fabrics and how the world is going to interact with fabrics."

And with the introduction of these first two products based on research from the new partnership, a whole new kind of technology "is finally actually turning into something tangible," he says.