Warwick Mills shows the kind of innovative know-how common among American textile companies that have survived the fierce global competition for the recent years.
The small private company in New Hampshire has climbed steadily up the economic ladder of its industry to produce specialised fabrics that weave in ceramics, metals and fibreglass. These high-value materials are used in products like safety gloves for industrial workers and body armour for the police and military.
Now, Warwick Mills is joining the Defense Department, universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and nearly 50 other companies in an ambitious $320 million project to push the American textile industry into the digital age. The key to the plan is a special ingredient: embedding a variety of tiny semiconductors and sensors into fabrics that can see, hear, communicate, store energy, warm or cool a person or monitor the wearer’s health.
“These would be high-tech offerings that change the game for the companies involved and for the industry,” said Charles Howland, president and chief engineer of Warwick Mills.
The advanced fabrics project, which is being announced on Friday, represents a new frontier for the Internet of Things. The term describes putting sensors and computing in all manner of physical objects — jet engines, power generators, cars, farm equipment and thermostats, among others — to measure and monitor everything from machines in need of repair to traffic patterns. Venture capitalists, start-ups and big corporations like General Electric and IBM are rushing to Internet of Things technology.
This latest initiative, Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, is intended to create a national network of research and development, design and manufacturing capabilities for the new fabrics. The products of this emerging field are being called “functional fabrics,” “connected fabrics,” “textile devices” and “smart garments.”
The field requires contributions from many disciplines, including materials science, electrical engineering, software development, human-computer interaction, advanced manufacturing and fashion design.
Clothes filled with sensors and chips could give new meaning to the term wearables, now mainly wristbound digital devices like a fitness monitor or an Apple Watch.
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