Function is king – as long as it conserves resources of any and every kind

A characteristic feature of technical textiles is that it is not the look of the fabric that matters most, but its function, says Stephan Schmidt from German industrial assocation IVGT and he should know. At the end of the day, his textile association speaks for more than 60% of the German textile industry and, with that, represents a total turnover of a staggering € 6.6 billion, largely achieved in the field of technical textiles. But what is the major current trend, exactly? Sabine Anton-Katzenbach, a recognised sector expert, is sure that it is: the conservation of resources.

As far as technical textiles are concerned, it is, above all, the special coatings that are of most help protecting buildings and textile structures from excessive heat and preventing heat loss in winter. In greenhouses, textiles with a special coating function as a light filter, thus acting to limit the use of resources, because they promote the growth of plants. Some initial experiments aim at using textiles to store electricity to compensate for times of peak demand (‘Eisbärhaus’ or ‘Polar Bear House’ project). “We are now seeing technical textiles everywhere. And we really do need them,” emphasises Stephan Schmidt. And because, of course, we always want more, as is our nature, the demand continues to increase and this in turn leads to ever more sophisticated coatings and new functionalities. “Multifunctional surfaces” are the magic words here. This refers to the combination of functions, such as germ resistance or flame resistance with, in addition, say, stain resistance or sensor and/or luminous effects thrown in. Preferably, of course, environmentally friendly as well, such as fire-resistant clothing based on high-performance metal hydroxides. But also the inclusion of LEDs in woven fabrics, so that it becomes luminous, is functionally extremely useful and can also be visually exciting.

A textile for advertising with integrated LEDs

A textile for advertising with integrated LEDs from TITV Greiz

The Institute for Specialist Textiles and Flexible Materials (TITV Greiz) makes these so-called “smart textiles” its business. In recent times, the institute is already looking into economically viable manufacturing options, so as, for instance, to be able to weave threads studded with mini SMD LEDs. The great advantage is that the LEDs are then woven into the fabric and thus enjoy greater stability and protection. (Note: SMD stands for ‘Surface Mounted Device’ and is therefore for use in components that are intended for surface mounting.) Another approach fosters the automatic attachment of numerous integrated circuits or LEDs by means of soldered contacts, using multi-head knitting machines in the manufacture, for instance, of textile displays with addressable RGB LEDs. Which brings us to the whole issue of ‘wearable technologies’, in other words ‘smart textiles that are worn next to the body’.

T-Shirt made by Ambiotex:

T-Shirt made by Ambiotex: measures vital body signs and lets you look great

In this area, for instance, the match2blue company, just a few days ago in San Francisco, launched the innovative ‘ambiotex’ T-shirt (www.ambiotex.com), with which vital body signs such as pulse, breathing, heart-rate variation (HRV), calorie consumption and physical work can be measured in real time. The T-shirt developed in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS) will come onto the market in October 2014. Researchers at the Institute for Textile and Process Engineering in Denkendorf (ITV Denkendorf) are following a similar vein and are looking at the issue of how we can control heat and cold with functional clothing, thus improving people’s health, productivity and mobility. It would be great, if we soon had clothes that stopped us both from sweating and feeling frozen.

With this in mind, the scientists at Denkendorf are using a kind of electrical heating element (Guarded Hotplate Measuring Procedure) to investigate the transfer of heat energy in the people-clothing-environment system, in order to be able to develop energy-efficient textiles. The new upholstery fabric from Art Novel (www.art-novel.de) is also all about energy efficiency, with a view to using the material as a beneficent energy source, which provides a unifying link between the management and flow of energy. Behind this lies the ‘energear’ textile technology from Schoeller Technologies (www.energear.ch), whereby the human being’s natural radiant infrared energy is reflected and transferred back to the body. A serious option, as the Hohenstein Research Institute has established. They confirm the “positive effects of energear”. No less innovative is the energy-saving latent-heat storage by STS Textiles, manufacturer of knitted fabrics for bedding, children’s seats, heat protection and industrial applications – recently winners of an award identifying them as one of Germany’s top innovators. The textile is just five millimetres thick and can be used to manufacture protective vests against heat and cold, as well as mobile heat storage units and roller blinds. Energy savings with a roller blind may amount, for example, to up to 20 per cent.

The ‘ Okalift SuperChange’, from manufacturers of chemicals for the building industry, Kiesel Bauchemie, addresses another kind of resource, namely time in the workplace. The aid here is a textile lining – a dual-layer woven fabric made of high-stability polyester – which enables wall and floor coverings to be quickly and easily affixed and removed. As a result, a professional cleaner can cover up to 60 m2 in just one hour (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H6oSxiMnps). Knitted 3D fabrics (spacer fabrics) go one dimension further – they are used, for example, in the recuperation of water from fog without the use of an additional energy source. This is currently being trialled in the Gobabeb desert research station in the Namibian Desert. Also in the desert, and built with technical textiles, is the “Palm Jumeirah” in Dubai, an artificial residential island on the sea built on geotextiles, and at HongKong Airport there is also an island that has been extended using geotextiles. This, by the way, continues to be the largest integral geotextile area in the world.

And last, but by no means least, another direction which literally takes us ‘under the skin’ – technical textiles are frequently being used in all sorts of ways to replace blood vessels and as hernia mesh implants, so that organ donation may well soon become unnecessary. There are countless examples of technical textiles with impressive functionality. Stephan Schmidt puts it thus: “A world without technical textiles is now inconceivable.” Technical textiles are, indeed, unbelievably fascinating – one could very easily get wrapped up in them…..

Copyright for the picture above: STS Grünbach

Iris Schlomski

Marc Chalupsky

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