New High-Tech Yarn Is the Ticket to Smart Garments
A North Carolina yarn manufacturer is hoping to “push the envelope” in the burgeoning smart textiles category.
Last September, Hickory, N.C.–based Supreme Corp. officially unveiled Volt Smart Yarns, whose soft launch got a huge response from various industries, including computer-chip makers, car manufacturers, clothing manufacturers, hospitals and healthcare companies.
Supreme, which specializes in covering yarns, has evolved considerably over the decades. It began as an elastic-covering operation and changed over the years due to the raw materials used. In the late 1980s, Supreme started working with high-strength yarns and eventually moved into cut-resistant yarns.
Matt Kolmes, Supreme’s chief executive officer, said at the core of Volt is a highly engineered composite yarn. It evolved from working with military contractors and now is moving into a variety of areas, including healthcare and sportswear. The idea for Volt came from a bonded-thread product sold for flame-resistant mattresses.
“We realized we know quite a bit about sewing thread,” Kolmes said. “It’s a perfect delivery mechanism for extremely fine copper wires. We started with two of those wires in our sewing thread and learned that the customer wanted more, so we went to four. They wanted a yarn or thread that could send signals.”
Kolmes said there were a number of companies that wanted this conductive yarn. It got a lot of attention at the Industrial Fabric Association International conference last September and was bestowed the association’s “Show Stopper” award for new products in the Fabrics, Fibers & Films category.
The attention at the New Orleans conference propelled Volt into many conversations with companies that want to move into smart fabrics and wearable technology. Supreme is now partnering with several companies that want to incorporate Volt into their product lines for 2020 or 2021.
But Kolmes said it’s apparent that companies are missing many variables in the equation, and Supreme is hoping to close that gap.
“There is a huge gap between textile and electronic people,” Kolmes observed. “They just don’t speak the same language.”
Noting that prototyping is costly, Kolmes said Supreme realized it had to blaze a new path for Volt by developing working relationships with companies in the electronics arena. “The takeaway I get is that we are going to have to give these companies products that work, and since we are textile people, this has forced us to make alliances that work with electronics as their bread and butter. We have developed a network of companies that we rely on to do prototyping and can see the product from beginning to end. It’s absolutely exciting and has pulled us in directions we thought we would never go.”
The first products using Volt yarns are going into military garments that track the health of soldiers. Kolmes believes the next round will move into the greater health sector with the innovation being used in hospitals and by doctors to monitor patients’ health, perhaps even alerting them to a spike in body temperature.
Kolmes noted that since 2007 and the advent of Fitbit, not much has changed in sportswear using smart textiles. He believes everything since then has been “bolt-on” technology, but now the industry is making big strides by moving toward a point where the sensor is the fabric.
“We are making a fabric that can heat you up, but the fabric can be a sensor. It’s a heater and a sensor. It’s an exciting moment for us,” he noted.
Supreme is now working on nine versions of Volt, with some versions requiring the filing of patents. Some of the potential uses for Volt are in automobiles, medical devices and police clothing, Kolmes said.
While Supreme is not at liberty to name many of its collaborators, one company it is partnering with is Pressure Profile Systems in Los Angeles, which develops tactile-sensing technologies. PPS is looking to develop an impact sensor to be used in retrofitting police body armor.
“In sportswear, everyone is interested in data. The whole world is hooked on high tech, and that’s only going to improve and grow. Most innovative companies are using smart clothing to measure performance. If you are a golfer, you can use your clothing as a trainer to measure the rotation of your hips.”
Kolmes said smart clothing also is being used to measure a variety of things, including fatigue, hydration and heart rate.
Volt exhibited at a wearable technology show in Tokyo in January with the smart-vest application it is developing with PPS. “We are taking baby steps,” Kolmes said. “Two to three years from now, Volt will be a meaningful part of our business. If all the metrics are correct about wearable technology, the market will be $5 billion to $10 billion in five years. That’s the reason we are interested in being in it. We want to push the envelope.”