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Sportswear Goes Hi-Tech(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 03,2007)



Clothing that can 'think' for itself is no longer an improbable concept following the massive growth in IT connectivity and subsequent development of "smart" materials.

These twin developments are now blurring the lines between fashion and well-being, while turning the sportswear wing of the clothing industry into arguably its biggest revenue earner in years to come.

Smart clothes are developments from nanotechnology, a field in which Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (PolyU) has been dubbed "the outstanding university in the [Asian] region" by UK-based, not-for-profit organisation Technitex Faraday.

Technitex director Brian McCarthy cites the PolyU's Institute of Textiles and Clothing (ITC) as a major influence on research and commercial application.

Approaching its 50th anniversary, the ITC is the PolyU's largest department, with 2,700 students, more than 70 academic staff and in excess of 100 full-time research staff.

"We have a wide range of coverage, with people working on new materials - wearable technologies and smart materials," explains ITC head and chair professor of textile technology Tao Xiaoming.

The combination of fashion design and technical innovation is an area of strategic development for the PolyU, representing a particular research focus.

"We were definitely number-one in 2005, with the publication of 170 new papers putting us ahead of Shinshu University in Japan," Tao notes. "On average, we have five or six patents granted every year, while last year [we had] one licence and two the year before."

Tao's department cooperates with many recognisable companies, such as fibre producer Invista, manufacturing giant Proctor and Gamble, textile machinery manufacturer Saurer of Switzerland and development company Australia Wool Innovation.

Crucial to the PolyU's success is the work of its Nanotechnology Centre for Functional and Intelligent Textiles and Apparels (NTC), which is supported by Hong Kong's public Innovation and Technology Fund, as well as the resources contributed by Hong Kong companies.

Research projects are under way to develop nano-finishing technology and nanotechnology for functional, intelligent textiles and apparel products.

Tao also points to nanotechnology projects covering anti-bacterial, water/oil resistant and self-cleaning fabrics, adding: "Designers are now working with the new finishes to make garments, shoes and school bags, among other items."

The PolyU's efforts are being spurred by massive growth in Internet connectivity, which is blurring the distinction between well-being and fashion as a new generation of interactive, intelligent clothing comes on stream to offer consumers hitherto unattainable functionality.

The application of nanotechnology to materials development also brings many other benefits, such as the PolyU's self-cleaning fabrics, stain- and static-resistant coatings and impact-resistant clothing - as well as memory foams and phase-change fabrics that can regulate body temperature.

The pace of development for "smart" clothes that use nanotechnology is expected to grow exponentially, with Canadian Nanobusiness Alliance figures predicting that the US$13bn global market for nanotechnology products in 2004 will increase to US$2.6 trillion by 2014 - or around 15% of global production.

Starting with military applications, manufacturers will soon be sewing electronic communications into soldiers' uniforms, such as GPS and the capability to send advanced information to remote medical personnel.

In fact, it could shortly be ubiquitous for consumers to don wearable "computing" using e-textiles (electro-conductive textiles) - whether weave, knit or print.

These garments can readily integrate electronic components, including switches, keyboards and user interfaces, building on initial commercial, body-monitoring applications in sports- and health-related sectors.

Recent developments include the NuMetrex heart sensing sports bra from US-based Textronics and the electro-cardiogram recording shirt from Canadian firm Smartex.

Incorporating entertainment into bodywear is also an increasing trend, with fashion brands looking to collaborate with electronics engineers to bring about new experiences for customers.

In 2006, for example, Nike and Apple announced the Nike+ Air Zoom Moire, sports footwear designed to talk to Apple's iPod? nano while training.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its burgeoning reputation as a technology marketplace and its international profile as a textile manufacturer, Hong Kong is playing a leading role in this blending of fashion and technology.

For example, the Hong Kong-listed Mascotte Group is a partner with UK-based Eleksen Plc, producing touch-sensitive interactive textiles that utilise Eleksen's core technology Elektex, which comprises an electro-conductive touch pad or programmable fabric.

Applications include the Elektex wireless fabric key+board for smart-phones retailing at US$151 and iPod-enabled suit jackets for Israeli-based tailoring firm Bagir, which are expected to retail at around US$283.

Some idea of the immense potential in this field can be gained from the fact that 100,000 keyboard units valued at US$2.2bn were shipped from the Mascotte Group's manufacturing plant on the Chinese mainland in 2005 alone.

Further afield, European researchers have developed an impact-resistant material called d3o, which contains so-called intelligent molecules that flow with the body during normal movement but lock together on impact to absorb shock in sportswear applications such as goalkeepers' gloves and ski jackets and pants.

UK-based company d3o has recently entered into an agreement to manufacture on the Chinese mainland, with production scheduled to start in January 2007.

Supply-chain logistics are believed to have been important in the decision, as many of the firm's consumer-brand customers already manufacture in Asia.

Three-year-old British firm P2i Ltd's new ion mask super-hydrophobic coating is used on sports shoes and repels water by means of a protective layer applied via ionised gas or plasma that also protects the inside from water seepage.

P2i sales and marketing director Dr Ian Robins believes the technology will be attractive to footwear and clothing manufacturers because the coating is applied after manufacturing, thus obviating the need to sew in waterproof layers.

"With such manufacturing intensity in China, manufacturers of footwear will be a major target of ours," he reveals. "The technology can bring manufacturing costs down by a factor of two and increase quality three-fold."

If further proof is needed that smart fashions are here to stay, it came with the launch at the September London design showcase, 100% Design, of a fully-fledged section called 100% Materials.

This started as an exhibit three years ago and has grown to display more than 200 samples of materials in 2006. "The whole area of materials is expanding at a huge rate and designers are realising opportunities to enhance products through material use," curator and industrial designer Chris Lefteri observes.

Obviously, consumers look forward to new and varied experiences that offer well-being, protection and medical care, sensory pleasure and entertainment.

Already on the materials map are vitamin-infused wearable fabrics that allow the body to absorb nutrition via underwear and computerised scent-output systems for health, well-being and dispensing medicines, not to mention intelligent fabrics providing weightlessness, durability and temperature modification.

Manufacturer CuteCircuit is already producing The Hug Shirt, which apparently integrates Bluetooth technology and mobile phone accessories for the sensation of being hugged over a distance.

There's even a suggestion that a Harry Potter-like "invisibility cloak" could actually become a reality as scientists at Imperial College, London, maintain that an invisible fabric is within the bounds of reason.

One thing is certain, however, and that is that come what may Hong Kong researchers and manufacturers will be producing high-quality, competitively-priced smart garments that buyers simply cannot resist.