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OM in the News: Smart Clothes Hope to Revive the U.S. Textile Industry

April 6, 2016
Preforms, which are heated up to draw out the fibers, which are then woven together to create a functional fabric.

Preforms, which are heated up to draw out the fibers, which are then woven together to create a functional fabric.

The U.S. Defense Department, MIT, and 50 companies have joined in an ambitious $320 million advanced fabric project to push the American textile industry into the digital age, reports The New York Times (April 1, 2016). Key to the plan is a technical ingredient: embedding a variety of tiny semiconductors and sensors into fabrics that can see, hear, communicate, store energy, or monitor the wearer’s health. These high-tech offerings hope to change the game for the industry.

The project represents a new frontier for the Internet of Things. IOT describes putting sensors and computing in all manner of physical objects — jet engines, power generators, cars, farm equipment and thermostats, among others — to measure and monitor everything from machines in need of repair to traffic patterns.The products of this emerging apparel field are being called “functional fabrics,” “connected fabrics,” “textile devices” and “smart garments.”

As we note in Chapter 1, OM requires contributions from many disciplines. Functional fabrics embodies the material sciences, electrical engineering, software development, human-computer interaction, advanced manufacturing and fashion design. Clothes filled with sensors and chips could give new meaning to the term wearables, now mainly wristbound digital devices like a fitness monitor or an Apple Watch.

Creating jobs, as well as technology, will be a measure of the project’s success or failure. Its goal is to reverse the steady erosion of textile jobs in the United States and generate more than 50,000 jobs in 10 years across a range of industries. “This is about reimagining what a fabric is, and rebirthing textiles into a high-tech industry,” says MIT’s professor leading the project.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. In what other industries do we see technology creating manufacturing jobs earlier lost to Asia?
  2. Why is the Defense Department leading this effort?

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