Just over a year after its funding award, a new center for the development and commercialization of advanced fabrics is officially opening its headquarters today in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will be unveiling the first two advanced fabric products to be commercialized from the center’s work.
Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, that is working to develop and introduce U.S.-made high-tech fabrics that provide services such as health monitoring, communications, and dynamic design. In the process, AFFOA aims to facilitate economic growth through U.S. fiber and fabric manufacturing.
AFFOA’s national headquarters will open today, with an event featuring Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics James MacStravic, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, and AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink. Sample versions of one of the center’s new products, a programmable backpack made of advanced fabric produced in North and South Carolina, will be distributed to attendees at the opening.
AFFOA was created last year with over $300 million in funding from the U.S. and state governments and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fiber-based products. The institute seeks to create “fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change color,” says Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. In short, he says, AFFOA aims to catalyze the creation of a whole new industry that envisions “fabrics as the new software.”
Under Fink’s leadership, the independent, nonprofit organization has already created a network of more than 100 partners, including much of the fabric manufacturing base in the U.S. as well as startups and universities spread across 28 states.
“AFFOA's promise reflects the very best of MIT: It's bold, innovative, and daring,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “It leverages and drives technology to solve complex problems, in service to society. And it draws its strength from a rich network of collaborators — across governments, universities, and industries. It has been inspiring to watch the partnership's development this past year, and it will be exciting to witness the new frontiers and opportunities it will open."
A “Moore’s Law” for fabrics
While products that attempt to incorporate electronic functions into fabrics have been conceptualized, most of these have involved attaching various types of patches to existing fabrics. The kinds of fabrics and fibers envisioned by — and already starting to emerge from — AFFOA will have these functions embedded within the fibers themselves.
Referring to the principle that describes the very rapid development of computer chip technology over the last few decades, Fink says AFFOA is dedicated to a “Moore’s Law for fibers” — that is, ensuring that there will be a recurring growth in fiber technology in this newly developing field.
A key element in the center’s approach is to develop the technology infrastructure for advanced, internet-connected fabric products that enable new business models for the fabric industry. With highly functional fabric systems, the ability to offer consumers “fabrics as a service” creates value in the textile industry — moving it from producing goods in a price-competitive market, to practicing recurring revenue models with rapid innovation cycles that are now characteristic of high-margin technology business sectors.
From idea to product
To enable rapid transition from idea to product, a high-tech national product-prototyping ecosystem called the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) has been assembled. The FIN is made up of small, medium, and large manufacturers and academic centers that have production capabilities allocated to AFFOA projects, which rapidly execute prototypes and pilot manufacturing of advanced fabric products, decreasing time to market and accelerating product innovation. The product prototypes being rolled out today were executed through this network in a matter of weeks.
The new headquarters in Cambridge, which was renovated for this purpose with state and MIT funding, is called a Fabric Discovery Center (FDC). It was designed to support three main thrusts: a startup accelerator and incubator that provides space, tools, and guidance to new companies working to develop new advanced fabric-based products; a section devoted to education, offering students hands-on opportunities to explore this cutting-edge field and develop the skills to become part of it; and the world’s first end-to-end prototyping facility, with advanced computer-assisted design and fabrication tools, to help accelerate new advanced fabric ideas from the concept to functional products.
Plans are underway to form additional FDCs in other locations in the country, with the goal of facilitating local economic growth in communities through advanced fabric innovation. These centers will provide a variety of facilities and local services, and each will sponsor its own startup competitions — modeled after the successful annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition — to encourage teams to create and develop new product ideas and business models. They will provide prototyping capabilities, incubator space for startups, training, and funding opportunities.
AFFOA announced the first two such FDCs last month: One is based at the University of Massachuetts at Lowell and the other at Lincoln Laboratory in collaboration with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center.
The FDCs will function as local chapters of AFFOA in their respective communities, aimed at combining intellectual-property expertise from universities, consumer insights, and funding from industry and government, and rapid product-prototyping through industrial partners and resources from public and private sectors. These efforts are expected to lower the barrier to commercialization in the advanced functional fabric space, enabling inventive companies to thrive in the same way that “app stores” enabled business software-based product innovation.
AFFOA and MIT
MIT’s engagement with AFFOA draws from many strengths, from research to education to entrepreneurship.
“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,” says Greg Rutledge, coordinator of MIT’s engagement with AFFOA. The Lamott du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, Rutledge and his colleagues have been working to develop predictive modeling and design of polymer fibers and meshes, novel processing and characterization, and engineering of textiles for applications spanning from protective garments to water filtration.
“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,” Rutledge says.
Education and entrepreneurship are also key components of MIT’s connection to AFFOA. “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.
Adds Professor Krystyn Van Vliet, director of manufacturing innovation for MIT’s Innovation Initiative, “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.”
Ahead of the pack
While new products intended for the consumer market typically require years of work from concept to product, Fink says, “In its first year, AFFOA has already spurred the development of two commercial-ready product platforms, which will be unveiled at today’s event.” The first of these — already in limited production, with samples to be distributed to the roughly 300 people attending the unveiling — is a “programmable” backpack prototype produced by JanSport, an AFFOA member.
The backpack is made of a breakthrough fabric developed through AFFOA and manufactured in South Carolina by Inman Mills in collaboration with UniFi Yarns (North Carolina), Burlington Manufacturing Services (North Carolina), and Granitville Specialty Fabrics (South Carolina).
The unique fabric enables the wearer to “program” their pack through a smartphone app called “Looks,” to associate and share information that is context-dependent through their pack. The system can be harnessed to help students better connect on campuses, enable professionals to network effectively at conferences, increase access security in elementary schools, store memories and information, and even enable dynamic advertising and online purchases and commerce. Plus, it can be programmed to notify its owner if it gets lost.
“This product exemplifies a future where clothing and other fabric products will be seen no longer as commodity products but as a service, similar to the way software is developed and sold,” Fink says. This approach will make it possible “for fabrics to take on a new role in the world, one where we receive high value-added services from fabrics.” People often appreciate experiences and services more than goods, he added “and the economics follows.”
A second new product platform to be introduced at the grand opening celebration is a technology dubbed “Fabric LiFi,” which harnesses the potential of new LED-based lighting systems that are rapidly replacing incandescent and fluorescent lights due to their energy efficiency and longevity. These new lighting systems can be used to broadcast data to any receiver within view, at extremely high bandwidths.
This technology could be used to provide highly accurate tracking and navigation in indoor locations where GPS does not penetrate and where tracking can be crucial, such as guiding patients within a hospital. The product might also help theatergoers or sports fans learn details about the events as they view them. It might also form the basis for active safety clothing for cyclists to help prevent night-time accidents.
The system could also deliver digital content to users through this lighting link, without affecting people’s perception of the quality of the light. For example, two people sitting next to each other at a sporting event could receive detailed commentary in real time, in two different languages, or oriented to fans of opposing teams, through optical fiber sensors built into a baseball cap. The same technology could enable soldiers or emergency responders to get data and imagery from a drone hovering overhead.
All these new developments, Fink says, represent “a major change in how we view fabrics and how the world is going to interact with fabrics.” And with the introduction of these first two products based on research from the new partnership, what had been a dream and a vision of a whole new kind of technology “is finally actually turning into something tangible,” he says.