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When clothing and electronics become one

Clothing that understands touch gestures, measures body values, activates digital services or provides light on request: Just a few examples for the many possibilities of printed electronics in the textile sector.

Whether it is sensors, displays, solar cells or complete control systems: In the form of printed electronics, their enormous flexibility makes it possible to equip textiles with completely new functions—even enabling truly “wearable electronics”.

A first approach here is to integrate appropriate components into the respective piece of clothing. Through the use of conductive inks, it is also increasingly possible to print directly onto textiles. Further possibilities are opened up by the fibers: In addition to electrically conductive fibers, there are also materials being developed or already available that are piezoresistive or piezoelectric, act as transistors or capacitors, generate power from light or emit electric light.

Currently, a distinction is made between three classes of products. Passive smart functional textiles, that make up the first of these classes, are limited to the mere collection of wearer or environmental data by means of a sensor. Active smart functional textiles are one level above that. Using an integrated actuator functionality, they can react with certain actions to data and information detected by the sensor. So-called ultra-smart functional textiles go one step further: They can automatically adapt their behavior or characteristics to changing circumstances.

A further distinction is made by the respective purpose of the printed electronics. They either serve a purely aesthetic, decorative or comfort-oriented purpose or they support specific activities, areas of everyday life or professions—such as in sports, medicine or work life in general. A first practical example of the latter is a jeans jacket developed jointly by Google and a jeans manufacturer especially for commuters: It allows the wearer to control smartphone functionalities on the jacket.