Textiles that can glow or change colors in response to environmental stimuli might sound like a science fiction scenario a few decades ago, but not anymore. Today, such smart fabrics or textiles have become a reality with numerous potential applications. Right from regulating our body temperature to protecting the wearer from environmental hazards like radiation, smart fabrics can provide some unconventional benefits to the wearer.
However, the use of smart textiles is not restricted only to the apparel industry. In the coming days, they are going to bring in a sort of revolutionary progress in industries like automobiles, robotics, medicine, and defense. And the latest patents filed by Apple just hint that. In this article, we are going to discuss Apple’s smart fabric patents and what to expect from these. But before that let’s take a brief look at what exactly a smart fabric is.
More About Smart Fabrics
Like many other cutting-edge technological inventions, the invention of smart fabrics has been fueled by military requirements. Fabrics that can change color were first developed by the US army in order to give its military the advantages of camouflaging.
As mentioned already, a smart fabric can sense environmental stimuli and for that it needs sensors. So, to infuse smartness in fabrics, components like fiber optics, nanoelectronics, thermochromic dyes, etc are embedded in conductive or semiconductive threads and yarns.
As a result, we get textiles that can gather energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound or heat, and thus change their colors, control muscle-vibration, regulate body temperature, and also communicate with other devices.
How Smart Fabric May be Incorporated in Apple Products
The first of the two smart fabric patents of Apple is titled “Insulated Conductive Strands with Polymer Cores.” In their patent filing, Apple has mentioned that the invention is related to items formed from strands of material, and especially to items formed from insulated conductive strands with dielectric cores.
For us, what it means is that this may lead to the creation of products that may incorporate smart fabrics, as well as other materials made by intertwining strands of materials. In such products, all strands may be conductive or both non-conductive and conductive strands may be woven together.
Such products may include a circuitry to produce signals, which will be carried or transmitted by the conductive strands. Each conductive strand will probably have a core made from polymers like para-aramids and aromatic polyesters. Techniques like extrusion or spinning may be used to make the polymer core.
There may be a conductive coating on the core (made from silver or other metals), and then an insulating coating on top of the conductive coating. The conductive or metal coating may be given by employing metal deposition techniques like the electrochemical deposition.
On the other hand, materials like polyester, polyvinyl formal, polyester-polyimide, polyurethane, and other polymers may be used for making the insulating coating. A thin layer of the liquid polymers may be used as an insulating coating on the outer side of a strand. Finally, the strands may be weaved with the help of braiding equipment, weaving equipment, knitting equipment, or other such equipment.
While incorporating smart fabrics, one may expect a few challenges. For example, to be used in products, conductive strands must possess both strength and flexibility. They also should not have high resistance, as they need to transmit electrical signals. A failure to carry signals properly can adversely affect the functioning of the product.
On the other hand, if the strands lack flexibility and are extremely delicate, they might ruin the look and feel of the product. So, achieving a judicious mix of strength, flexibility, and conductivity may be a bit challenging at times.
Another problem will be blending the non-conductive and conductive strands in a way that they do not look or feel different. Moreover, care has to be taken to make sure that the conductive strands do not form any short circuits with neighboring structures.
Warp Knit Fabrics
“Warp Knit Fabrics with Variable Path Weft Strands” is the title of the second patent filed by Apple. In the second patent, Apple informs that warp knit style equipment will be required for some articles in order to make the fabric strong and rigid. A number of fabric constructions and multi-layered three-dimensional structures can be created with warp knit fabrics.
A warp knitting machine may be employed for making warp knit fabric by weaving the strands together. Such a fabric may include interwoven warp strands, as well as weft insertion strands placed among the warp strands.
The weft insertion strands may be fitted into the warp knitting machine with the help of a weft insertion device placed by a computer-controlled positioner. The different segments of these strands may have different widths with regard to each other and also to the width of the fabric.
So, What Can be Expected from Apple’s Smart Fabric Patent?
As per the official publication of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple Inc. has been granted a series of 68 new patents recently, and out of them, two are in the smart fabric category. In their patent filing, Apple has mentioned that “strands in item #10 may form all or part of a housing wall for an electronic device, may form internal structures in an electronic device, or may form other strand-based structures.”
It is also reported that “Item #10 may be soft (e.g., item 10 may have a fabric surface that yields to a light touch), may have a rigid feel, may be coarse, may be smooth, may have ribs or other patterned textures, and/or may be formed as part of a device that has portions formed from non-fabric structures of plastic, metal, glass, crystalline materials, ceramics, or other materials.”
Apple has also disclosed that the item #10 may be an electronic device or an accessory for it. So, it could be a laptop, a computer monitor with an embedded computer, a portable electronic device, a headphone, a device embedded in eyeglasses, a television, a navigation device, a wrist-watch device, a strap or wristband, or a removable cover for devices.
Apple has also posted a report about smart and interactive garments. So, in the future, we can expect smart fabrics being integrated into products like wallets, pockets, clothing, hats or caps, sofas, cushions, etc., where electronic devices can be inserted.
The main Inventors named in Apple’s patent are Daniel Podhajny and Dan Sunshine. Daniel Podhajny is a product designer at Apple who previously worked for Nike. At least 20 Nike patents, mainly related to fabric sensing devices and knitted components of footwear are attributed to him. On the other hand, Dan Sunshine was a lead hardware engineer at NASA before associating with Apple.
To sum up, we are going to witness the introduction of smart fabrics in a number of Apple devices in the coming days. The IDC (International Data Corporation) is already forecasting that the smart fabric will be the fourth best selling wearable product by 2021, and with the kind of patents Apple has filed, there is no doubt that Apple is going to be one of the biggest players in this segment too.
Image Credit: Microtron-3d