Weaving together innovation at Drexel University

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The earliest civilizations knew how to weave fiber into textiles. But those products bear little resemblance to the high-tech “functional fabrics” being engineered at Drexel University — these miraculous materials can see, hear, sense and communicate.

Consider some of the smart fabrics under development today at the West Philadelphia campus: a maternity bellyband to monitor uterine activity and assess fetal wellbeing; protective, touch-sensitive garments for robots; a knitted exoskeleton for the hand; energy storage for textiles and wearable technology.

touch sensor
A touch sensor integrated into a functional fabric

Functional fabrics like these “can do things like monitor vital signs, store energy from movement and help regulate the body temperature of the user…just to name a few,” explains Dr. Aleister Saunders, Drexel’s senior vice provost for research. The range of potential applications is vast and includes the military, aerospace, architecture and healthcare.

Functional fabrics R&D at Drexel recently received a huge boost. In April, the U.S. Department of Defense(DoD) named the university a regional center in its new $75 million Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Institute. The designation allows Drexel to potentially compete for tens of millions of dollars in funding.

Functional fabrics like these can do things like monitor vital signs, store energy from movement and help regulate the body temperature of the user, just to name a few.Dr. Aleister Saunders

The school brings expertise in digital modeling, structural analysis, and prototyping of fibers and textiles to the consortium of academic institutions, industry leaders, government initiatives and nonprofits.

“The fact that the DoD has identified functional fabrics as a critical focus for U.S. advanced manufacturing is validation for Drexel,” said Drexel President John A. Fry in a statement. “We’ve been working on smart textiles for nearly a decade.”

In response to the designation, Drexel has created the Center for Functional Fabrics (CFF), a new centralized home for its trans-disciplinary research and accompanying intellectual capital. CFF will coordinate with academic units and Drexel’s Steinbright Career Development Center to address educational and workforce opportunities within the AFFOA network.

Designing functional fabrics at Drexel
Designing functional fabrics at Drexel

“Our initial involvement will be to support research, product development and tech transfer, but we’re also looking at building academic programming that will support the affiliation,” says Saunders. “AFFOA is a tremendous opportunity for researchers, technologists and entrepreneurs in the region. We will be using this support to build a network of resources so that any company — from a startup to an established brand — could come to Drexel with an idea, a prototype, or even a product that’s already on the market, and, by working with our team, help mold that concept or product into the technology they’re envisioning — or maybe something even better.”

These advances could ripple out into the broader economy.

“Currently there are no industry standards for introducing new materials into textile manufacturing, and this is one of the main obstacles blocking U.S. manufacturing from making a big leap forward,” adds Genevieve Dion, an associate professor in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab in the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center. “If we can bridge that gap by offering the research and testing necessary to establish standards and develop processes for using new materials in manufacturing, this institute can remove that roadblock so our nation’s economy can move forward.”

Any company — from a startup to an established brand — could come to Drexel with an idea, a prototype, or even a product that’s already on the market, and, by working with our team, help mold that concept or product into the technology they’re envisioning — or maybe something even better.Dr. Aleister Saunders

Part of the White House’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, AFFOA comprises 31 academic institutions including MIT, University of Texas and University of Michigan, 16 industry partners including Nike and Microsoft, startup incubators and venture capital groups. Drexel will serve as the anchor for mid-Atlantic partners, linking Pennsylvania institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, Temple University, the MEDstudio at Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University

to manufacturing and investment partners such as DuPont, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia Office of Manufacturing and Industry, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

“Drexel played a central role in assembling this group of governmental, academic and industrial visionaries who are all motivated by the goal of advancing a new model of American textile manufacturing and helping to develop new products for the public and defense sectors,” adds Saunders. “In collaboration with AFFOA, CFF at Drexel will help to build an advanced manufacturing ecosystem in the Commonwealth, attracting new ventures and creating jobs.”

ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.

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