Pentagon partners with MIT to develop smart-fabrics

Smart fabrics are seen as the future of the US textile industry. Image courtesy of MIT.
Smart-fabrics are seen as the future of the US textile industry. Image courtesy of MIT.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) has announced a public-private partnership to accelerate the development of smart-fabrics.

The DoD has chosen to partner with an MIT-based non-profit to create the Advanced Functional Fibers of America (AFFOA) Institute.

AFFOA will be created with $75m in seed funding from the DoD and another $250m in funding from private and public enterprises. The institute itself will be the eighth Manufacturing Innovation Institute established – part of a federal push to promote high tech manufacturing in the US.

The partnership will reportedly include 32 universities, 16 industry members, 72 manufacturing entities, and 26 startup incubators. Within these are some of the leading materials manufacturers in the US including: Warwick Mills, DuPont, Steelcase, Nike, and Corning.

Smart-fabrics are seen a key way to add additional value to the products of the US textiles industry. Such fabrics involve textiles interwoven with electronics and sensors, able to provide real-time information about the wearer and their environment.

The US military is particularly interested in this technology due to its battlefield applications including clothes which can detect chemical contamination, power-generating fabric, and even parachutes that can self-identify faults.

“Revolutionary fibers and textiles have enormous potential for our defense mission,” said US Defense Secretary Ash Carter during the announcement of the institute last Friday.

These fabrics also have significant civilian uses, especially in the fields of medicine and professional sports and even high-end fashion.

“This manufacturing innovation institute will be the national leader in developing and commercializing textiles with extraordinary properties,” said Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

National Network for Manufacturing Innovation

The newly announced AFFOA is the eighth Manufacturing Innovation Institutes set up by the US federal government.

These institutes each specialize in specific kind of high-tech manufacturing. Current fields include: 3D-printing, digital design, lightweight materials, semiconductors, advanced composites, photonics and flexible electronics.

Together these form the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a project spearheaded by President Obama to revitalize the US manufacturing sector with new technology. In its initial phase the NNMI will consist of 15 institutes.