As part of our Core77 Tech-tacular, we took a deep dive into the world of wearables with a survey of the current landscape of wearable technology. In it, Carla Diana calls for a more holistic and wide-reaching approach to the field by approaching product design with integrity, cultural context and a deeper knowledge of materials.
Material ConneXion boasts the world’s biggest library of materials and publishes reports on their monthly findings. To get a cutting edge material-hound’s view of where connected tech is heading, we spoke with Dr. Andrew Dent, Material ConneXion’s Vice President and materials researcher.
Core77: We’d love to hear your thoughts on new trends for connected tech. What are the most important things to keep an eye out for right now?
Andrew Dent: To start, the difference in what we’re doing and our intention with our reports is a focus on materials. Type in ‘wearables’ and you’ll get watches or trackers for your body. But if you’re thinking about creating a device, not just a watch (which is currently just a phone with a strap around it…not that groundbreaking), we’re more interested in the idea of smart materials and textiles. Less like an object, more like something you’d wear and forget about. Integration into clothing and accessories, not a distinct separate device. The trends I’m seeing are in four areas, in both materials and process.
First, seaming and encasing. The coming together of two things, as a solution. Polyurethane tape is a flexible alternative to stitching, already regularly used in bras and swimwear. It’s also an excellent way of sealing in wires and connectives. It’s already in apparel, now how can we use that as a substrate? It’s challenging to put electronics into woven and knit fabrics as part of the structure, since it’s still expensive and complicated. With the move away from yarns for stitching and towards films and membranes, perhaps it’s easier to put the electronics in that, sealed by another layer, to make it waterproof etc. With this you don’t have to be an excellent weaver to get your cables and so on into fabric.
Second, stretch. Polyurethane stretches, and we’re seeing more electronics that can also stretch, without losing the quality of the signal. I can make something stretch, but can I do it without losing connection or quality of sound in headphones? In new connectivity it’s vital to retain normal range of movement without losing quality. Now we’re seeing an increased flexibility of printed electronics, able to stretch without losing quality.
Third, 3D, two ways. Several companies are using stretchable material as a base and thermoforming it into a 3D shape. It’s also increasingly possible to deposit onto a surface, in a printed or spray-painted application, now even onto very complex shapes and difficult compound curves. (Imagine a hand palm down on paper, and drawing a connected line up over the fingers and down—those types of contours!) We traditionally put the circuit board inside the object. Now you can print it on a flat 2D piece and then form it into a 3D piece, like the outer surface of a phone or a lamp, or you can “spray on” your circuitry with a very focused type of spray painting.
Fourth, disposability. Now this may be a good thing, or not, but we’re seeing advances in cheap enough batteries, wires and sensors (and even some screens) that they can become disposable. This is interesting because we’re moving towards a more highly efficient system of producing flexible, disposable products. There are many applications for this. Packaging, tickets, interactives. The combination of a number of technologies now all able to be put down and working in a low cost, high volume way makes them cheap enough for one-time use. That most packaging IS thrown away is a fact we have to accept, and this area will be interesting to watch.
Last is less of a new trend and more of an ongoing problem: the deep disconnect between engineers and creatives. And magazines, blogs, and information resources are to blame! In a clickbait headline you’ll see, “This new tech will allow us to do… a NEW INCREDIBLE IMPOSSIBLE thing!” Trying to help clients with wearable technology, they’ll say, “I want to charge my iPhone from my bag.” Ok, how? The perception that the technology exists, easily available, with no problems is a problem. Electronics are systems! The reason smart phones and watches are doable is that they’re very high technology in one integrated small piece. Apparel is a much larger area, the system has to adapt itself to that shape. A technology can work fine in the lab, but often they haven’t talked to an apparel or footwear designer —“I have to kick with that! It’ll be dragged through the mud during winter.” Electronics are still second fiddle to apparel or main function.
I adapt to the way my phone works. It’s not a durable object, so I encase it in something. It only has so much battery, so I always have a charger. I’m adapting to my phone’s needs. That’s not the case yet with wearables. I don’t want to have to charge my bag, I want to hang it up! We expect clothes to work like clothes. A different perception of use needs to be the case. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Washable flexible bendable durable… we would never expect from a smartphone. And there’s extrapolation of what can be done. Thermoelectric fabrics, for example, generate electricity from the flexing of the fabric itself. A client wants to charge a cellphone from a jacket, you go back to original article and there’s one tiny piece [of evidence] that couldn’t possibly support the claims made, which were never supported by the researchers.
You have expressed a lot of interest in naturally-based and grown materials. What are some sure signs that they’re getting out of the sci-fi (or retro) realm and into viable territory for designers and manufacturers?
One promising process is the mineralizing of natural fibers like hemp using lime, the product of which is incredibly strong and can be used for building blocks, like cements, but with a no heat process. Super durable and hard with building viability. It’s not a complete replacement for cement, but good for construction.
Biopolymers are also viable solutions. A great early use of biopolymers was the Braskem sugarcane polyethylene used in bottles for companies like Odwalla. Engineering quality plastics, made out of natural resources. Now, we can’t make all materials from it or we’d run out of food, but new methods use algae and sources that don’t cut into food or arable land. For every option from corn or sugar cane, we need more from the less interesting sources like algae that can be produced on an industrial scale and replace oils.
There are also plenty of waste resources that are underutilized. Professor Wool of University of Delaware has won an award for his use of chicken feathers as a strengthener, and is now also applying it as a fibrous base in a false leather. They get approached by companies like Tyson all the time—industrial byproducts cost producers for their disposal.
Additives, chemicals, precursors in manufacturing might be less interesting or splashy but work as adhesives or intermediaries, and are bio-based. You don’t hear about them as much because they’re less sexy, but there are a lot of them that you don’t even see.
Are there specific industries you believe will benefit most from developments in these types of naturally-based materials?
One industry that WANTS to use them is packaging. I congratulate Coke and Pepsi on plant-based bottles that were a real breakthrough, because they worked in the existing manufacturing and disposal stream. A biopolymer for a beverage bottle doesn’t work because it contaminates existing stream—it complicates recycling and messes up existing positive structures. New options can enter the recycling stream, still using a bio based resource. Sensible!
Consumer products...less so. Some companies use it as marketing, but not a lot of it. We’re seeing coconut fiber surf boards, or Columbia’s alternative to neoprene, but no critical mass because in those cases the material is more expensive than the standard, barring wide adoption.
Architecture loves the idea and wants to use them, but they only have to make one! Each building is a prototype. So they’d have to test the hell out of these materials. That said, architects are used to using natural materials, like lumber. And we’re getting good at taller buildings entirely made out of wood, up to 10-12 stories.. and they have a warmth to them that you can’t get from steel and glass.
Others might be industries that we don’t deal with or see much. Adhesives, etc. In automotive they’re sometimes in trunk liners, unseen interior panels. German and European manufacturers are actually mandated to use more natural materials.
Since the release of the most recent Material Connexion book on product design, which field have you been focusing on? When will the next publication drop?
Packaging should come out in August. Other topics will include interior design, then fashion or transportation design.
Any advice for designers interested in broadening their use of materials past the tried and true?
The important guiding ideas for us are like that Donald Rumsfeld quote that won him a Foot In Mouth Award. There are three areas of knowledge: the stuff that you know that you know (designers know the materials that they know), then the known unknowns (I don’t know everything about it, but I know it exists), and the third section is the unknown unknowns. That’s the area that has the most potential. Until you’re provided with a new palate of materials you’re missing out. If you want to stretch yourself go for the things outside your frame. Thats where we come in—the stuff you didn’t even know exists—along with the info you need to use it and think and work in an entirely new way.
Until an example [of building with mushrooms] the normal response would have been “What? No!” And that’s great! That’s our role and one of the most enjoyable things about what I do.
Check out Material ConneXion for more information about their publications, services and ever-growing library of cutting edge materials.
This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.
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I love this!!! I'm so glad some of the big named companies are making moves to be more environmentally friendly!
Nice interview; he seems like a grounded dreamer.