Textiles maketh the athlete and spectator – and new technology is bringing change

This is where it starts...

According to UK-based Textiles Intelligence, the global value of the sportswear market is estimated at over $315 bn. Adidas and Nike command a 40 per cent share between them. In the US alone, the world’s largest single market for sporting goods, wholesale sales of sports equipment, apparel and footwear reached a total of $77.3 billion in 2011, up by 4.2 per cent compared to the previous year. Moreover, the vast majority of companies in the US sporting goods industry expect to achieve significant further increases in sales and earnings in 2012.

Brands have been gearing up to capitalise on a growing television audience.  Ultimately the key will be to find applications that are affordable and allow volume distribution into consumer markets.

Smart fabrics are at the cutting edge of physiological and materials science. Originally developed with military applications in mind (the US Defence Department was keen to monitor the performance of its soldiers when under fire), the technology now promises to spark an arms race in sport. Use of body-worn sensors and interactive coaching systems too have been escalating rapidly, having been driven largely by Adidas and Nike.

The integration of electronic sensor equipment with high-tech fibres, usually in vests or shirts, is increasing. Advances in textile manufacturing mean that clothes can now be made to incorporate GPS, heart rate monitors, ECG readers, posture detectors and temperature recorders without encumbering athletes or requiring them to be wired to machines. Powered by, for example, soft Li-ion battery strips, the inbuilt monitoring equipment can wirelessly send real-time details of vital signs direct to laptops while an athlete trains or competes. This data can then be analysed and used to record stamina and energy loss, and spot weaknesses or training programmes that may be doing the competitor more harm than good. In team sports, it can even be used to improve positional play.

Tottenham Hotspur Football Club has signed a five-year kit deal worth an estimated £10 million with a US smart fabrics developer, which also supplies clothing to the Welsh Rugby Union. Meanwhile, the British Olympic cycling team is working with a Formula 1 manufacturer to exploit its in-car technology for use in intelligent shirts. Much of the gadgetry in smart fabrics is based on the fully integrated onboard computers in F1 cars, which are used to constantly monitor drivers.

The 7th Annual Smart Fabrics Conference, held in London in April, covered an array of new technologies and applications focused on making our lives easier, safer, healthier and more comfortable through the textiles we wear and use every day. Speaking at the conference, writer/editor Adrian Wilson defined Smart Fabrics as “fibre-based structures that can react to stimuli,” integrating electronics with textiles to provide new concepts for lighting, heating, cooling, energy harvesting, communicating, sensing, measuring and monitoring.

The health and safety requirements for smart fabrics are often undefined or vary amongst the regulatory agencies, and the protection of intellectual property is expensive and time-consuming. According to Dr. Lieva Van Langenhove of Ghent University, over €500 million has been spent researching smart fabrics by the members of SYSTEX, a European consortium organized to coordinate research and break through some of these barriers.

Innovative manufacturing processes are being developed for the application of electronic circuitry, sensors or LEDs to various textile structures. The Photonic Textile Project at Philips utilises an automated weaving loom to create a fabric substrate with a conductive yarn circuit for integrated LEDs and electronics. The fabric is thin, flexible, mouldable and cut-able, providing conformable lighting for fashion, interiors and architecture. The light-emitting fabric is said to be washable with components that can be broken down for recycling, with energy use comparable to currently available lighting technologies.

Swiss embroidery company Forster Rohner has developed embroidery systems for conductive materials, called e-broidery™.  This allows flexibility in placing electronic circuitry or LED’s dubbed “solar sequins” using soft conductive thread, and recently lit up the CO2 –sensing Climate Dress developed by the Copenhagen design studio DIFFUS.

Already some specialists produce shirts that are decorated with LEDs activated by the wearer’s movements. The design team of Ryan Genz and Francesca Rosella developed their own conductive threads. Finland’s CLOTHING+ is using automated techniques such as laser cutting, lamination and ultra-sonic welding to integrate sensors and electronic connectors with textiles for clothing. At Nottingham Trent University, Professor Tilak Dias and team have developed a method of encapsulating micro-devices in yarn for knitted apparel fabrics or thread for RFID technologies.

New Nike-designed NFL uniforms have hydrophobic qualities that keep the fabrics from absorbing drain water from armpits/sweat; lighter, streamlined padding on the shoulders to replace double layers; new indented thigh padding; and new stretch material.

Protective layers beneath the outer, termed ‘under armour’, now incorporates technologies such as E39 biometric compression in shirts allowing tracking of athletes’ breathing rate, heart rate, skin surface temperature, force and direction and sends data via Bluetooth. You don’t even get that in a Mercedes!

Each major event, be it sport or tourism related, business or cultural, needs a fresh line of attack and innovative tactics. New Millennium Business can help you through the opportunities and challenges you face, delivering a strategic and practical package that addresses important trends, the intense competition and financial realities. Our ongoing analysis of the major events industry provides you with leading edge interpretation and knowledge that will make a significant difference to your business and to the quality of service you deliver.


Eric Winton

Director, New Millennium Business

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