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ILP Institute Insider

October 16, 2018

Weaving the fabrics of change

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America drives fast-paced industry partnerships that leverage fibers with innovative properties.

Eric Bender

Imagine you could take wearable textile fibers and make them “highly functional” by embedding them with modern semiconductor components like light-emitting diodes, photodetectors or sensors.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine smart fibers like these. You can watch them being created at the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) headquarters, just off the MIT campus, where a fiber with built-in optical communications is descending from a draw tower and rolling onto a spool.

The fibers, whose grain-of-sand-size LEDs glow brightly, are drawn from a heated polymer preform that incorporates the LED and photodetecting semiconductor chips, along with a pair of copper wires to deliver power. Highly flexible and small enough in diameter to fit through a needle, these functional fibers can be woven into soft fabrics that have the durability to withstand multiple machine-washing cycles.

Yoel Fink
Chief Executive Officer, AFFOA

Professor of Materials Science,
Department of Materials Science
and Engineering

This pioneering achievement was described in the journal Nature in August 2018. Commercial products utilizing the technology will begin to reach the market in 2019, says Yoel Fink, AFFOA chief executive officer and MIT professor of materials science and electrical engineering.

“AFFOA’s mission is to transform fabrics and turn them into highly functional systems that can really deliver services and high value experiences to consumers,” Fink says. “Our path to getting there goes through fibers that have devices in them. We’re bringing the basic ingredients of technology—insulators, conductors and most importantly semiconductors—into a single fiber.”

The organization has far-reaching goals: “to commercialize textile products that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health and change color while delivering the conventional qualities of textiles to benefit the commercial consumer and warfighter.”

Strengthening fibers
AFFOA began with support from the Department of Defense, which seeks to build national manufacturing capabilities in advanced functional fabrics. The non-profit organization was kicked off in 2016 with a successful MIT proposal for a $317 million program, combining $75 million in federal funding with $242 million in other investments from Massachusetts, MIT and other sponsors. The partnership currently has 120 member organizations, including 26 universities.

AFFOA’s headquarters is also its first Fabric Discovery Center. Opened in June 2017, “this facility is the first of its kind, capable of delivering an integrated advanced fabric,” says Fink. Here, researchers not only can design and manufacture these fibers in volume, they can test out the fibers in fabrics created in industrial weaving and knitting machines, and then integrate the fabrics into functional systems.

The organization is building a national network of fabric discovery centers, with the next three now open at MIT Lincoln Labs, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Drexel University.

These centers showcase novel concepts—for example, “fabric communications,” which can broadcast and receive data optically at very high bandwidths from LED lighting systems to fibers in clothing or headwear. Among the potential beneficiaries are the thousands of pedestrians and bicycle riders who now are hit by cars. “A tremendous amount of investment is going into improving car safety but how about involving the pedestrians?” Fink says. “Fabric communications will let you know if the car has detected you, through a communication link between its lights and your fabric.”

AFFOA’s key role, however, is to move beyond the concept stage—allowing researchers to prototype highly functional fibers and fabrics, and build industrial partnerships to bring commercial products to market.

Practical prototypes
AFFOA’s membership brings together a broad coalition of industry, academic, government and entrepreneurial partners, with industry partners split into two main types: manufacturers and product companies.

Manufacturers might make woven fabrics, apparel, car seats or composites, for instance. “With all of those types of companies, we are funding directed projects which we call micro awards, which demonstrate that our advanced fibers can fit in with their process,” Fink says.

“For example, we come to a company that manufactures rope and challenge them to get an advanced light emitting fiber into one of their ropes, to create an optical communications system,” he explains. “That typically is an iterative process where we ship fibers, the manufacturer tells us where they fail, and then we improve both on the process side and the fiber material side until we arrive at success.”

These projects are an example of what Fink calls “shot clock” innovation.

“We do not have annual projects at AFFOA,” he says. “We have 90-day projects, which allows us to focus on execution of very directed thrusts in areas that we really care about. Many companies are becoming part of this effort, getting out of slow-moving long-term projects and into shorter-term projects that are part of a long-term plan.”

AFFOA works with startups and also sees strong participation from traditional firms such as textile makers.

“Very few textile mills have survived over the past 30 years in the U.S.,” Fink notes. “These mills have an acute sense that things have to change pretty dramatically for them to survive, and that injecting a new functional meaning into fibers could transform their industry. They're here at the table working very hard to try to figure out ways to get these new materials into their processes and fabrics.”

With the second main group of AFFOA members, product companies, the challenge is to create an exciting product with smart fibers and fabrics.

“Product companies are trying to differentiate themselves in design, but very few companies are able to sustain an advantage in that area,” Fink points out. “You may have a good design for one year but the next year, your competitors have it.”

“These companies are trying to build products that have a sustainable competitive advantage that stems from this new technology, which is protected by intellectual property rights,” he says. “They're asking us to help them design innovative products that are truly differentiated, that provide customers with new types of experiences through fabrics.”

AFFOA’s national prototyping network for advanced fibers is a critical resource and differentiator. “Companies typically have certain prototyping capabilities, but those are limited to the products they're working on,” Fink says. “Companies now can come to us and tell us what they're prepared to prototype, and we’ve organized that into a system that allows us to deliver rapid prototypes. That lowers the barrier to innovation and allows us to go from concept to working prototype in a very short period of time.”

Fabric functional revolution
This year AFFOA partnered with MIT Venture Monitoring Service to launch the Advanced Fabrics Entrepreneurship Program, which is helping more than 25 early-stage ventures work toward commercialization.

This first cohort is pursuing efforts that range from printed stretchable batteries to smart bras that monitor heart health and from a collar for pet tracking to a base-layer for soldiers that can detect trauma and activate a tourniquet.

“Being able to draw talent into the field of fabrics is the key to long-term value creation, and people are coming here with their own ideas,” Fink says. “We are supporting these ventures by providing them with connections to industry, prototyping facilities, high quality mentors and importantly access to proprietary technology.”

When we think of fabrics today, we may think of clothing, which delivers comfort and aesthetic design. “But in the years ahead, fabrics will take on a very different functional meaning,” Fink says. “They will play significant value-added roles in our lives. This is a time change for the textile industry and with it comes significant commercial opportunities. AFFOA is the place to come and participate in the fabric revolution.