Embedding Smart Fabric Sensors in Your Next Product
Laura Sloboda posted on March 05, 2015 |
Embedded ink can create monolithic circuits in new flexible, durable fabric.

The rise of the intelligent wearable gadget is upon us, and many engineers are looking at ways to incorporate wearables into their product designs. Look around and you might notice that activity trackers, heart rate monitors and smart watches have become ubiquitous. The next logical step in our quest to become cyborgs, it seems, is to integrate smart sensor technologies into garments themselves, negating any need to wear obvious gadgets.

Image: BeBop Arm Media Controller

The fabrication of smart textiles is a burgeoning industry.  BeBop, a new competitor to the field, recently launched a Wearable Smart Fabric Sensor – a product capable of comprehending a variety of physical factors such as force, motion, location and weight. Their current range of products includes a skullcap sensor, shoe insoles, grip sensors and a media controller that can be sewn into the arm of a jacket.

Printing stretchable circuits right into a fabric

“We print circuits that are stretchable right onto the fabric,” says Keith McMillen, BeBop Founder. “We’ll be selling these sensor systems to companies who will put them into shoes, athletic wear, clothing, medical garments, and a number of other applications. It’s really been satisfying and scary with how many high level companies have approached us,” says McMillen. “It validated the need for such technology.”

The Wearable Smart Fabric Sensor is an ultra slim fabric that unifies all of the necessary sensors, traces and electronic components into a single layer. The circuits are printed directly on to the fabric using embedded ink, which Bebop has developed throughout extensive work with DuPont Microcircuit Materials  (DMM).

Image: BeBop Skull Cap

“Our inks act as an interconnect,” says Steven Willoughby, DMM marketing manager. “Instead of a wire, you have a printed interconnect, and instead of just a sensor, you have a printed sensor made of a very specially designed conductive ink that offers stretchable, washable types of properties.”

The result is an electrically stable ink that can be printed on to various fabrics and withstand up to 100 wash cycles. “We’ve even been able to print circuits onto shoe insoles that are 0.5 mm thick. There are 20 sensors per sole, and they’re remarkably accurate, have dynamic range, and can sense roughly 50 grams to 100 kilograms,” says McMillen.

Goal for stretchable fabric is 12 months out

Bebop’s future looks promising. They tout a technology that has already caught the eye of hundreds of companies in a range of different markets, from athletic goods to medical sensors to automotive. Their next step is to partner with an embedded sensor specialist to enhance their product development and launch.

“We want to have these technologies on the market in the next 12 months – not in five years,” explains McMillen. “So we want to work with companies that have the ability to work quickly and get new products to market in a short time cycle.”

The ultimate goal of smart textiles is to integrate sensors and electronics into clothing  seamlessly (pun intended), so that you forget they’re even there – until you want to harness the power of continuous, real time data collection.

“I’d like to see our sensors in garments that people are buying because of the color or fit,” says McMillen. “I think the technology needs to be so smoothly integrated that it’s almost forgotten. A lot of wearables are bizarre looking things that people hang off their bodies. It really has to be beautiful and ignorable, and I think that’s a threshold we’ve already passed.”

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