Highly sensitive textile aids

What do medical technology (high performance) sports and personal protective equipment have in common? They are sectors in which a high drive for innovation is being coupled with equally high investment to develop textile sensor solutions that serve to maintain, and potentially even increase human performance or to prevent a drop in performance in dangerous environments. As is often the case, these discoveries subsequently become part of everyday and leisure apparel and so benefit a wider group of users. These textile sensors can also provide assistance to people who, due to illness or accident, have lost their own sensory capacity.

The path now followed by sensor research can be seen basically as a counter-concept to so-called ‘wearable electronics’. Whereas the latter integrated electronic components into clothing for communication or entertainment purposes in a way that was as compatible with textiles as possible, the approach taken in the sensor sector is quite literally more sensitive. In this area it is state of the art to incorporate conductive fibres and/or polymers into clothing for measurement purposes. It is possible to measure a myriad of different data and relay them either to external stations for measurement / analysis or to recording devices worn on the body.

Next there are pressure sensors. The company Alpha-Fit has developed a sock that incorporates threads which are both conductive and capable of measurement at crossover points to create a diagnostic tool that is used to fit orthopaedic shoes for people with diabetes. In contrast to previous development models, it is possible to capture the pressure distribution in 3D and show the relative dynamic pressures that act on the whole foot when walking. Using these precise data the orthopaedic shoemaker is able to make shoes that have the necessary width and support at the critical points to help prevent the effects of diabetic foot.

What has been initiated by Alpha-Fit in the field of medical technology can also be applied to other applications. Ski shoe fitting could be one such application, for example. Downhill skiers will know the ‘pain’ feet are obliged to endure following several hours of sport. Further areas of application include pressure mats to measure pressure distribution when someone lies on a mattress. In this case ‘good sleep’ textile sensors react to the hardness or softness of the underlayer. Bicycle saddles and wheelchairs are other conceivable application areas for short term implementation.

The sock example demonstrates not only the wide range of potential applications, but also how important interdisciplinary cooperation is in this industry. Partners in this development included, for example, the company Novanex from Leipzig who helped Alpha-Fit in terms of design, production development, research and marketing. The companies are currently working together on body mapping solutions that illustrate the distribution of pressures on the body as it moves during high-performance sports so as to potentially provide new insights for the design of supportive clothing.

Background picture: Source – Forster Rohner AG

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