​Editor’s note: Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh is Research Director at IDTechEx, which provides independent research, business intelligence and advice to companies This is the second of a two-part report about the future of wearable technology. Part one is linked with this post.

LONDON – Conductive ink suppliers are touching and feeling their way into the e-textile market. Many have launched specially-designed inks on the market. Some examples are shown[in the photo with this post] Most are also having to proactively help form and develop the nascent value chain. This is currently still more of a push than a pull market.

This is a complex space since conductive inks are one of many approaches being concurrently developed for e-textiles. To name a few, these approaches include metal cabling, textile cabling, conducting knits, conductive wovens, conductive inks, etc. There is a paucity of verified technical information and well-defined figures-of-merit on the market. We have therefore developed our semi-qualitative benchmarking based on many end users and supplier discussions, which can be found within the IDTechEx report: E-Textiles 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, and Players.

There is no clear-cut winner. This is because some approaches win, say, on ease of integration with existing processes or maturity,whereas others win on increased clothing-like appearance and feel. Project Jacquard’s smart jacket, built specifically for urban bikers, is an excellent example of a compromise in these areas, with the look and feel being key in the selection of conductive yarns as the primary material. Still, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and the winner will be specific to an end use and/or a production process.

This makes sense as the traditional textile world itself includes many fabric types, production processes, and end uses. Despite the appearance of familiarly, this is an incredibly diverse and complex industry.  The technology composition will therefore be a mixed bag in the medium-term as e-textile manufacturers will likely select their conductor of choice based on the specific requirements of each application and their own existing production processes.

In the long-term, e-textile conductive inks will have a larger addressable market than all the other solutions. This is because they offerthe highest degree of universal applicability: their integration is a post-production process that can be used by almost any textile manufacturer unless the fabrics cannot withstand high laminating temperatures or are very loose.

In the short to medium term, the risk however is that some end applications are more equal than others. For example, IDTechEx Research finds that smart sports clothing alone will make up 65% of the market by 2020. The challenge is therefore in identifying, targeting and winning in specific high-growth application sectors. IDTechEx Research can help you find and penetrate these sectors.

Not the finished article yet

The ink technology however is not yet finished article. Achieving washability, direct-on-fabric printability, and high stretchability are challenging technical requirements. The industry is only beginning to accumulate expertise here. Therefore, this is the beginning of the beginning and we expect better e-textile conductive inks in the future.
The process currently is too complicated because the inks need to be printed and cured on a substrate such as TPU before being encapsulated using a similar substrate. The film then needs to be hot laminated over the fabric. This approach improves washability and durability, and does away with the technical headache of having to develop a different ink optimised for each fabric substrate, but screams out to be simplified.

TPU itself is the first choice of encapsulate but not likely to be the last. This is because it is not the most stretchable thus restricting the clothing-like feeling of e-textiles particularly if large areas are covered. Already companies are experimenting with other material systems such as TPU/silicone combinations.

Silver costs can also be a limiting factor. This opens the way for carbon or graphene based inks in applications where high conductivity is not required. In the long term copper inks may also be an option but they have a long way to go to prove their reliability and technology maturity.

About IDTechEx

IDTechEx guides your strategic business decisions through its Research and Events services, helping you profit from emerging technologies. We provide independent research, business intelligence and advice to companies across the value chain based on our core research activities and methodologies providing data sought by business leaders, strategists and emerging technology scouts to aid their business decisions.

Learn more at: