Is this the ‘killer app’ for smart textiles?

The development of new technology often creates opportunities to provide value to customers in new products. It is common for marketers and investors to talk about finding a ‘killer app’, an application of a technology that is so desirable that it defines the core value of the technology area which enabled it in the first place.

As James Hayward, principal analyst at IDTechEx reports, E-textiles have hundreds of potential use cases being explored by different companies around the world. IDTechEx’s latest report on the topic, “E-Textiles & Smart Clothing 2021-2031: Technologies, Markets and Players”, categorises key players and market trends across each of the main target markets.

There are many more specific product trends, with examples covered in the report including smart home, hospitality, automotive interiors, veterinary uses, motion capture, haptic suits, assistive clothing, and more. Product trends around physiological monitoring and active heating within apparel dominate as the two most prominent product themes.

So, where is the ‘killer app’ for e-textiles?

The most successful market?

To date, the most successful electronic textile product type is heated apparel, which generates around three-quarters of all the annual sales revenue from e-textile products. Whilst the core technology has been commercial and mature for more than 20 years, more recent innovations such as improved rechargeable batteries, new manufacturing techniques for heating elements, and improved washability via improved integration and connectors continue to move the market forwards. Whilst it is not the most glamorous, most advanced technology, the most funded or most hyped, it certainly has a strong case as being the most successful sector.

The market with the most potential?

The other most prominent product trend in e-textiles is around physiological monitoring. Integration of various sensors into apparel can enable the monitoring of numerous metrics which can then be combined to create actionable data or higher analytics.

Speculative research & development (R&D) interest from leading players in sports apparel, medical devices, and technology sectors has combined with significant private equity funding to drive hype and progress from many start-ups and maturing companies. 

The challenge comes in the complexity and variety of potential applications. ‘Smart clothing’ as every day, mass-market products has been widely explored but remains technologically and economically impractical. Many players have moved from targeting sports and wellness applications to explore medical approvals for products. This comes with additional costs and risks, and longer timelines to commercialisation. However, there has been promising progress on many fronts, and the long-term potential of this group of applications exceeds all others.

The most sustainable market?

James Hayward

Whilst the complexity and product economics are often barriers to the high-volume production of some e-textile products today, these challenges also enable significant opportunities for a business model that sits between direct product sales and design consultancy. Companies can develop core capabilities in the design and assembly of smart textile products and work with many customers that may have speculative product ideas.

Of all the companies that can be loosely grouped as ‘e-textiles’ players, companies following this model are often those that have the greatest longevity, continuing for years or even decades of profitable or at least break-even operation. Application examples include the development of worker monitoring and safety equipment or smart PPE (personal protective equipment), military applications, and smart clothing used to monitor the vital signs of astronauts.

The killer app?

It is safe to say that e-textiles hasn’t yet reached a level of commercial success for the ‘killer app’ narrative to make sense. Just as Steve Jobs announced on its launch that the killer app for the iPhone was going to be “that it can make calls”, killer apps seem much easier to reflect on than to predict. 

In e-textiles, the diversity and variety that exist within the industry enable a huge spectrum of many potential application areas which have been developed with varying success over the last 25 years. This year has seen continuing interest from some of the largest technology companies and industry players, with some players renewing and reinvesting in new projects. This, combined with the industrious and pragmatic development made by players today, and the general level of maturity will eventually reach a threshold where mass-market smart clothing products become more feasible. 

IDTechEx has compiled a full report, “E-Textiles & Smart Clothing 2021-2031: Technologies, Markets and Players”, a resource for any company that is assessing opportunities within this sector, or seeking to gain a third party view on the latest technology trends and developments.

The report assesses the state of the e-textiles and smart clothing industry, with detailed profiles of many key players, reviews and discussion of each step in the value chain, and assessment of each end product market. It also contains a full market forecast with discussion, considering the potential and future for this technology over the next decade.

For more information, or to download sample pages, Click here

The author is James Hayward, principal analyst at IDTechEx.

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_OR @jcIoTnow

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