What potential is there in the smart textile market? With potential uses ranging from fashionable everyday clothing and sportswear to applications in medicine, the military and the construction sector, it’s no surprise so-called “smart textiles” are on the rise. Growth projections for this sector of the economy are optimistic. ZEW researchers Dr. Jörg Ohnemus and Dr. Fabienne Rasel have produced a report on the smart or intelligent textile industry in Germany on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. In this interview, Jörg Ohnemus offers some insights on this new market, including its future prospects and potential innovations.

What exactly does the term “smart textiles” mean?

Smart textiles are a subcategory of what is known as “wearable technology”. In the case of smart textiles, the technology is actually woven into the thread. The fibres in smart textiles have new surface, protective and “intelligent” features that previously were not available in textile form. For example, they can gather and relay information, light up, generate heat, heal wounds or monitor a person’s heart rate, breathing and body temperature. There are a number of companies, including start-ups, that have already developed products involving smart textiles. Well-known examples include the US textile manufacturer Levi’s, who have created a “smart” jacket for urban cyclists in collaboration with Google, and sporting goods manufacturer Nike with their “smart” shoes with intelligent laces. That being said, today smart textiles are most commonly used in medicine or in the military.

What distinguishes the intelligent textile market from other markets?

First of all, the smart textile market consists of companies from various sectors, such as the textile industry, the electrical engineering sector and the information and communication technology sector. With the availability of new materials and technical possibilities opening up many new opportunities in the design and use of (everyday) clothing, this market has also attracted many fashion designers under the umbrella of “fashion tech”.

What has the development of this market looked like thus far and what are its future prospects?

Until now, definitive figures on the development of this still relatively new market, particularly in Germany, have been few and far between. According to ZEW calculations, the size of the global market for intelligent textiles in 2017 was roughly 1.3 billion euros. We expect this to reach almost 4.7 billion euros by 2022 and over 41 billion by the year 2030. The estimated size of the current market in Germany is around 230 million euros. By the year 2030, we expect this figure to be almost twenty times higher. While according to experts from academia, organisations and private companies the German textile industry has been slowly disappearing over the past 100 years, there is now hope that digitalisation and the astounding developments in smart textiles will reverse this trend and in doing so save jobs in this sector. Like the German economy overall, the intelligent textile sector is strongly export-oriented and is often at the cutting edge in terms of technology. Germany is one of the leading economies worldwide particularly in terms of the supplier industry (for conductive yarn or miniature sensors) and medical technology.

The main drivers for growth include the production of protective clothing for the military as well as textiles for medical applications, with the sport and fitness and fashion sectors also playing a significant role. There is also great market potential in the production of intelligent textiles, which often involves the collaboration of companies from different sectors of the economy. We expect to see a considerable boost in the development of production methods within the next two years at most.

The development of these smart textiles requires far-reaching innovations. Is the German market prepared for this?

The textile industry is among the most cutting-edge of all Germany’s innovative sectors, on a similar level to mechanical engineering. The percentage of companies in the sector that have implemented product or process innovations has been on the rise in recent years and in 2015 was as high as 55 per cent. Though it is not possible to make any concrete statements on the extent of innovation activity involving intelligent textiles, we can assume that this sector is in a strong position to compete at both the national and international level.


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