MIT, Defense Department Announce Plans for Smart Fabrics

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is announcing $75 million in funding for the nonprofit Advanced Functional Fabrics of America to jump-start the next big thing in "smart wear."

by Jonathan Takiff, The Philadelphia Inquirer / April 1, 2016
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Flickr/Ash Carter

(TNS) — Philadelphia universities already deep into research on smart fabrics and wearable technology will earn a major boost from the Department of Defense on Friday that could jump-start the next big things in "smart wear" for health, security, communications, energy, and fashion.

Holding court Friday morning at MIT, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is announcing $75 million in funding for the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, a nonprofit billed as "a revolutionary fibers and textiles manufacturing innovation institute."

While MIT is the lead educational institution for AFFOA, a big chunk of the funding will be apportioned to the mid-Atlantic research group chaired by Drexel with regional partners Temple, Philadelphia University, and the MEDstudio at Thomas Jefferson University locally, plus Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and Penn State in State College.

"Tens of millions" will land in local research coffers, said Aleister Saunders, Drexel's senior vice provost of research, as the teams also receive infusions from industry partners and venture capital firms.

Largely consumer-facing corporations like Nike, the North Face, Bose, Goodyear, Microsoft, Intel, Flextronics, P&G, Faurecia, DuPont, Corning, and Steelcase are already part of AFFOA.

Venture capital supporters include the Pa. Angel Network, Angel Capital Association, Westbury Partners, North Bridge Venture Partners, the city of Philadelphia's Office of Manufacturing and Industry, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania via Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

That is expected by the DOD and the White House's National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, which has shepherded AFFOA and nine other centers since 2012 to give the U.S. manufacturing sector a technological boost, adding value to exports, supporting the economy, and generating jobs.

Sophisticated products serve the national interest even when soldiers are not wearing them. So suggested Ron Kander, executive dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce at Philadelphia University, the Germantown-based, industry-linked institution that has not abandoned its original mission as our "College of Textiles and Sciences."

As one example, new tech wearables with interwoven sensors that first measure the health and fatigue levels of soldiers will also serve the needs of sports coaches who want the best from their players, said Kander.

He agrees with Genevieve Dion, director of Drexel's Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab that the trick is to develop communication wearables and architectural materials — like smart awnings — that are washable, waterproof, and that can withstand the elements. "Creating lab standards for smart fabrics is a high priority."

Dion also sees a bright future in "energy harvesting fabrics" that might encase home furniture. "Think of all the low energy Wi-Fi signals floating around our homes that could be gathered and reused."

And the brainstormer sees great potential in "ExoSkin" - high tech, low profile wearables that restore movement and independence to a person who has a disability.

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