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Advanced Functional Fabrics of America opens headquarters steps from MIT campus

New AFFOA facility represents a significant MIT investment in advanced manufacturing innovation.
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The proximity of the new headquarters of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute to MIT's campus will help connect students and faculty to new facilities, including the Fabric Discovery Center that provides end-to-end prototyping from fiber design to system integration of new textile-based products.
The proximity of the new headquarters of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute to MIT's campus will help connect students and faculty to new facilities, including the Fabric Discovery Center that provides end-to-end prototyping from fiber design to system integration of new textile-based products.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

These are not your grandmother’s fibers and textiles. These are tomorrow’s functional fabrics — designed and prototyped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and manufactured across a network of U.S. partners. This is the vision of the new headquarters for the Manufacturing USA institute called Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) that opened Monday at 12 Emily Street, steps away from the MIT campus. 

AFFOA headquarters represents a significant MIT investment in advanced manufacturing innovation. This facility includes a Fabric Discovery Center that provides end-to-end prototyping from fiber design to system integration of new textile-based products, and will be used for education and workforce development in the Cambridge and greater Boston community. AFFOA headquarters also includes startup incubation space for companies spun out from MIT and other partners who are innovating advanced fabrics and fibers for applications ranging from apparel and consumer electronics to automotive and medical devices.

MIT was a founding member of the AFFOA team that partnered with the Department of Defense in April 2016 to launch this new institute as a public-private partnership through an independent nonprofit also founded by MIT. AFFOA’s chief executive officer is Yoel Fink. Prior to his current role, Fink led the AFFOA proposal last year as professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Research Laboratory for Electronics at MIT, with his vision to create a “fabric revolution.” That revolution under Fink’s leadership was grounded in new fiber materials and textile manufacturing processes for fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, and monitor health.

From the perspectives of research, education, and entrepreneurship, MIT engagement in AFFOA draws from many strengths. These include the multifunctional drawn fibers developed by Fink and others to include electronic capabilities within fibers that include multiple materials and function as devices. That fiber concept developed at MIT has been applied to key challenges in the defense sector through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, commercialization through a startup called OmniGuide that is now OmniGuide Surgical for laser surgery devices, and extensions to several new areas including neural probes by Polina Anikeeva, MIT associate professor of materials science and engineering. Beyond these diverse uses of fiber devices, MIT faculty including Greg Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering, have also led innovation in predictive modeling and design of polymer nanofibers, fiber processing and characterization, and self-assembly of woven and nonwoven filters and textiles for diverse applications and industries.

Rutledge coordinates MIT campus engagement in the AFFOA Institute, and notes that “MIT has a range of research and teaching talent that impacts manufacturing of fiber and textile-based products, from designing the fiber to leading the factories of the future. Many of our faculty also have longstanding collaborations with partners in defense and industry on these projects, including with Lincoln Laboratory and the Army’s Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, so MIT membership in AFFOA is an opportunity to strengthen and grow those networks.”

Faculty at MIT across several departments and schools have also created innovative new product concepts ranging from sweat-responsive sports apparel advanced by Professor Hiroshi Ishii’s group to design of self-folding strands of multi-material fibers by Professor Skylar Tibbits. Professors Neri Oxman and Craig Carter developed new modeling and materials fabrication capabilities that facilitated the first 3-D-printed dress featured at Paris Fashion Week in 2013. Innovations in functional fabrics for health monitoring on projects involving MIT and run using the Fabric Discovery Center could range from targeting human wellness to identifying flaws in the structural integrity of the built environment. In fact, many of these fiber and textile manufacturing technologies and products include active or passive sensing capabilities, highlighting the synergies of MIT participation in several manufacturing institutes that need or use this functionality. Those connections motivated the SENSE.nano symposium in May that launched the first center of excellence in the MIT.nano building that is nearing completion on campus.

“The proximity of AFFOA’s headquarters and this new Fabric Discovery Center to MIT’s campus is an important new way for MIT to connect our students and faculty with the national AFFOA network of industrial and academic partners,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research.

As the Manufacturing USA institutes include a strong focus on education and workforce development, AFFOA’s new Fabric Discovery Center can draw from national expertise as well as local strengths at MIT in project-based learning. For example, Alex Slocum, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has led multiple design classes that have resulted in several startups in innovative fabrics and apparel, including Ministry of Supply, founded by four MIT alumni in 2012 and now located on Newbury Street in Boston. MIT professors Steven Eppinger and Maria Wang have offered a product design and development class jointly with the Rhode Island School of Design, geared toward MIT Sloan School of Management MBA students. Such efforts nucleated at MIT can now be expanded and piloted to benefit more members of AFFOA in the region and nationwide.

Seamlessly integrating hands-on and online learning, Professor John Hart leads the first manufacturing-focused massive open online course (MOOC) last year, as 2.008x (Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes) now available on edX. MIT’s leadership in online platforms to enhance manual skill development can also benefit AFFOA, including use of MITx platforms to adapt and share key classes with four- and two-year colleges and companies that have joined AFFOA — as MITx is now implementing with AIM Photonics Academy, another Manufacturing USA institute focused on integrated photonics. Undergraduate research in wearable and equipment technology has also been fostered since 2011 by Annette (Peko) Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering and founder of the Sports Technology and Education at MIT (STE@M) group that facilitates undergraduate research and visits to companies.

“MIT’s engagement in AFFOA will help speed adoption of new manufacturing technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere, and help prepare our region’s textile innovators to be able to both invent it here and make it here,” notes Professor Krystyn Van Vliet, director of manufacturing innovation for MIT’s Innovation Initiative.

In fact, MIT also offers unique, industry-partnered master’s degree programs that can connect fiber and textile supply chain leaders to AFFOA, including Leaders for Global Operations’ dual Engineering Masters and MBA, and MIT’s Masters of Engineering in Advanced Manufacturing and Design. Additionally, MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, led by Elisabeth Reynolds, and MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research, co-led by professors Thomas Kochan and Paul Osterman, offer valuable perspective on industry relations and policy issues impacting the manufacturing workforce including middle skills workers, small and medium manufacturers, and regional economies.

“Partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as another key stakeholder in AFFOA’s impact on our local workforce, colleges, and companies has been a wonderful catalyst for strong and growing connections between MIT and other manufacturing innovators in the state,” notes Martin Schmidt, MIT provost. “As one of 10 Manufacturing USA institutes in which MIT participates, we look forward to leveraging the strengths of each Manufacturing USA institute including AFFOA, to maximize positive impact on the manufacturing workforce of the future.”

MIT is hosting an upcoming hackathon for Advanced Functional Fabrics for Challenging Environments at the MIT Media Lab from July 28-30, co-organized by MD5 and partnered with AFFOA.

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