If you knew that hundreds of millions of running shoes are disposed of in landfills each year, would you prefer a high-performance athletic shoe that is biodegradable? Would being able to monitor your fitness in real time and help you avoid injury while you are running appeal to you? If so, look no further than the collaboration between MIT and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
For the second consecutive year, students from each institution teamed up for two weeks in late June to create product concepts exploring the use of advanced fibers and technology. The workshops were held collaboratively with Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based national nonprofit whose goal is to enable a manufacturing-based transformation of traditional fibers, yarns, and textiles into highly sophisticated, integrated, and networked devices and systems.
“Humans have made use of natural fibers for millennia. They are essential as tools, clothing and shelter,” says Gregory C. Rutledge, lead principal investigator for MIT in AFFOA and the Lammot du Pont Professor in Chemical Engineering. “Today, new fiber-based solutions can have a significant and timely impact on the challenges facing our world.”
The students had the opportunity this year to respond to a project challenge posed by footwear and apparel manufacturer New Balance, a member of the AFFOA network. Students spent their first week in Cambridge learning new technologies at MIT and the second at FIT, a college of the State University of New York, in New York City working on projects and prototypes. On the last day of the workshop, the teams presented their final projects at the headquarters of Lafayette 148 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with New Balance Creative Manager of Computational Design Onur Yuce Gun in attendance.
Team Natural Futurism presented a concept to develop a biodegradable lifestyle shoe using natural material alternatives, including bacterial cellulose and mycelium, and advanced fiber concepts to avoid use of chemical dyes. The result was a shoe that is both sustainable and aesthetic. Team members included: Giulia de Garay (FIT, Textile Development and Marketing), Rebecca Grekin ’19 (Chemical Engineering), rising senior Kedi Hu (Chemical Engineering/Architecture), Nga Yi "Amy" Lam (FIT, Textile Development and Marketing), Daniella Koller (FIT, Fashion Design), and Stephanie Stickle (FIT, Textile Surface Design).
Team CoMIT to Safety Before ProFIT explored the various ways that runners get hurt, sometimes from acute injuries but more often from overuse. Their solution was to incorporate intuitive textiles, as well as tech elements such as a silent alarm and LED display, into athletic clothing and shoes for entry-level, competitive, and expert runners. The goal is to help runners at all levels to eliminate distraction, know their physical limits, and be able to call for help. Team members included Rachel Cheang (FIT, Fashion Design/Knitwear), Jonathan Mateer (FIT, Accessories Design), Caroline Liu ’19 (Materials Science and Engineering), and Xin Wen ’19 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science).
"It is critical for design students to work in a team environment engaging in the latest technologies. This interaction will support the invention of products that will define our future," comments Joanne Arbuckle, deputy to the president for industry partnerships and collaborative programs at FIT.
The specific content of this workshop was co-designed by MIT postdocs Katia Zolotovsky of the Department of Biological Engineering and Mehmet Kanik of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, with assistant professor of fashion design Andy Liu from FIT, to teach the fundamentals of fiber fabrication, 3-D printing with light, sensing, and biosensing. Participating MIT faculty included Yoel Fink, who is CEO of AFFOA and professor of materials science and electrical engineering; Polina Anikeeva, who is associate professor in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and Nicholas Xuanlai Fang, professor of mechanical engineering. Participating FIT faculty were Preeti Arya, assistant professor, Textile Development and Marketing; Patrice George, associate professor, Textile Development and Marketing; Suzanne Goetz, associate professor, Textile Surface Design; Tom Scott, Fashion Design; David Ulan, adjunct assistant professor, Accessories Design; and Gregg Woodcock, adjunct instructor, Accessories Design.
To facilitate the intersection of design and engineering for products made of advanced functional fibers, yarns, and textiles, a brand-new workforce must be created and inspired by future opportunities. “The purpose of the program is to bring together undergraduate students from different backgrounds, and provide them with a cross-disciplinary, project-oriented experience that gets them thinking about what can be done with these new materials,” Rutledge adds.
The goal of MIT, FIT, AFFOA, and industrial partner New Balance is to accelerate innovation in high-tech, U.S.-based manufacturing involving fibers and textiles, and potentially to create a whole new industry based on breakthroughs in fiber technology and manufacturing. AFFOA, a Manufacturing Innovation Institute founded in 2016, is a public-private partnership between industry, academia, and both state and federal governments.
“Collaboration and teamwork are DNA-level attributes of the New Balance workplace,” says Chris Wawrousek, senior creative design lead in the NB Innovation Studio. “We were very excited to participate in the program from a multitude of perspectives. The program allowed us to see some of the emerging research in the field of technical textiles. In some cases, these technologies are still very nascent, but give us a window into future developments.”
“The diverse pairing and short time period also remind us of the energy captured in an academic crash course, and just how much teams can do in a condensed period of time,” Wawrousek adds. “Finally, it’s a great chance to connect with this future generation of designers and engineers, hopefully giving them an exciting window into the work of our brand.”
By building upon their different points of view from design and science, the teams demonstrated what is possible when creative individuals from each area act and think as one. “When designers and engineers come together and open their minds to creating new technologies that ultimately will impact the world, we can imagine exciting new multi-material fibers that open up a new spectrum of applications in various markets, from clothing to medical and beyond,” says Yuly Fuentes, MIT Materials Research Laboratory project manager for fiber technologies.