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"Pasta: woven electronics to make smart textiles"

An interview with Johan De Baets, coordinator of the Pasta project at the Centre for Microsystems Technology (CMP) of the University of Ghent in Belgium, in association with the Imec laboratory.
"Pasta: woven electronics to make smart textiles"

Pasta is an odd name for a scientific project aimed at integrating electronics into textiles. Is it an acronym or a play on words ?

I admit, the name is fun and it certainly attracts attention, but it is first and foremost the acronym for Platform for Advanced Smart Textile Applications. It is a European project within the framework of the European Commission's seventh technological research and development programme. We therefore received European funding. However, this is not the most important information. Pasta aimed to find the way of easily integrating electronics into textiles. Initially, our aim was to find a way to bridge the worlds of electronics and textiles and cause them to evolve. We therefore sought solutions to render the flexibility of textiles compatible with the rigidity of electronic components. 


Why create such a project ?

At the project's launch in 2012, many of us saw the potential in the growth of plastronics. And with good reason: electronics are essential and necessary for many objects. Until the emergence of plastronics, electronic systems were inserted into a separate casing which was often difficult to integrate into the object without ruining its appearance. With this new technology, the electronic parts are adapted to the object, which saves space and reduces weight. However, as promising as plastronics may be, the technology is particularly suited for small surfaces for obvious reasons relating to moulding. However, for many applications, an electronic circuit needs to be distributed over large surfaces. 


Imagine a wall that could light up wherever it is touched, a little like a touch screen. It is easy to understand that such a wall would require a vast network of conductive wires in order to function. We then envisioned a textile that could fill this role provided that it contained conductive wires and electronic components at the time of being woven. This is no easy feat given the rigidity of electronic components. In order to bring our project to fruition, we needed to find a way to make electronic components stretchable.

Why choose textiles, and what type of fibre did you opt for?

Textiles have all the required qualities: they can be mass-produced in large sizes at an affordable cost. In addition, they are lightweight, flexible, stretchable and, where appropriate, comfortable to wear. All that was left to do was find the right fibre. We opted for polyamides, and not only because they are affordable. We were looking for a material that could be dry-cleaned to avoid damaging the electronic components, and they fit the bill. In addition, the fibres are transparent and we thought it was a good idea to work on quasi invisible applications before they are powered up.


What were your first avenues of investigation ?

There were many. However, before exploring them, we would ask ourselves what possible applications they might have. The aim was not to conduct research for the sheer pleasure of the pursuit, but rather to invent a new technology which could be used in industry and therefore sold. For the sake of clarity, this entailed us seeking to incorporate LEDs into textiles using weaving and embroidery techniques, as well as RFID chips and electronic cards using a micro-crimping process.


Were you successful?

We met most of our goals, although there is still room for improvement. For instance, despite the flexibility of the plastic used to make it, we have been unable to stretch a garland of LEDs to the point of making it as thin as an electrical wire used for electronics. However, we were able to stretch it enough to integrate it into a slightly-modified sewing machine in order to embroider it onto polyamide. One of our other successful attempts resulted in us finding a way to add a weft when weaving the textile in order to directly attach a conductive wire. The micro-crimping process has also been mastered, although some electronic components, even though they are only a few millimetres thick, are still too large to be made flexible.


Are you already envisioning concrete applications?

Fortunately, yes! The principle of woven LEDs could lead to a multitude of applications such as clothing with light-up logos. There is a market for this; that much is certain! More seriously, the fact of being able to weave LEDs into textiles could be of interest to event planners who could use the process to manufacture their signage. The signs would be durable, lightweight and very easily stored since they could be folded like a sheet or a towel depending on the size. The technology could also be of great interest to athletes. The LEDs could be linked to body sensors, for instance. The colour of the light could be used to alert runners that they are in a state of hypoxia, for instance.


The world of medical devices is also ripe for very concrete applications. Mattress and draw sheet manufacturers could integrate urine sensors into the textiles used to manufacture their products. This may sound laughable, but it would be extremely useful in nursing homes. We think that prosthesis manufacturers would be interested in the technology. It is very difficult to manufacture custom-made prostheses since both the volume of the stump and the pressure it exerts on the prosthesis must be taken into account. By incorporating sensors into the fabrics used, that information could be obtained instantaneously and even be stored on an RFID chip.


When do you think that this new smart fabric might be available?

Not in the immediate future. Although the prototypes are highly promising, there is much to be done before considering mass production. First of all, it is necessary to assess whether the product is viable, whether there really is a market for it. All of us firmly believe that it is, and that there is a market for it! Next, it needs to be improved to better sustain washing, because the general public cannot be asked to dry-clean their t-shirts. I see this smart textile coming to market in the near future, but it will be relatively expensive to manufacture. This is why it will initially be used to manufacture high-end products which favour comfort and service over the consideration of cost.

This will be the case for clothing for high-level athletes, and luxury products, and also in healthcare. And if the market expands, larger volumes will be manufactured and prices will drop. We will have to be a little patient.

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