Smart, smarter, TEXIBLE – sensor textiles for healthcare
Smart, smarter, TEXIBLE – sensor textiles for healthcare
Interview with Thomas Fröis, Managing Director and Founder of TEXIBLE GmbH
Smartphone, smart TV, smart home – intelligent devices have become an integral part of our lives. Even textiles – especially those used in the healthcare sector – are increasingly equipped with sensors, allowing them to fulfill various functions while they go unnoticed by users. That is also the idea behind TEXIBLE. The start-up company makes its innovative sensor textiles by using a very unique method.
Thomas Fröis, Managing Director and Founder of TEXIBLE GmbH
In this COMPAMED-tradefair.com interview, Thomas Fröis describes the journey from yarn to the finished product, explains how smart textiles can enhance healthcare and reveals the role they might play in the future.
Mr. Fröis, what's the idea behind TEXIBLE?
Thomas Fröis: In 2016, we become a spin-off of the University of Innsbruck. In close cooperation with the surrounding textile industry in the area, we have developed several sensor-equipped textile prototypes at the Research Institute of Textile Chemistry and Textile Physics. We ultimately intended to advance and distribute them in serial production. This gave way to our TEXIBLE GmbH, with which we ultimately turned our prototypes into market-ready products.
What do these products look like? What types of textiles are they?
Fröis: We have a variety of orders from clients in different fields of industry. For example, we feature textiles for a smart T-shirt that monitors the wearer's heart and respiratory rate, which is especially interesting for competitive athletes. Another project involves shoe insoles that measure the pressure distribution and are ideal for orthopedic purposes. Our approach is based on the integration of function in textile products. We are not introducing brand-new products. Instead, we integrate sensors and more functionality into an already existing, much-used product. The only difference is that the wearer receives feedback about the use.
Wisbi is a bed insert for nursing care patients, which is actually one of our own developments. In addition to being a conventional insert that protects the bed, our special bed insert also measures wetness and occupancy. It detects when it is wet or whether a patient is in the bed. The bed insert alerts immediately but also features a delay setting. For example, if the patient gets up and does not return from the bathroom within ten minutes, the bed insert sends this information to an app and thus alerts the caregiver. This is not just an exciting option for inpatient care settings but also for private households. The benefit for home caretakers is that they are alerted whether a family member is still in bed or not, even when they are outside the home shopping etc.
Sensors are woven into the Wisbi bed insert to detect wetness and occupancy. In addition to communication via app, it can make everyday nursing life considerably easier.
You just mentioned the feedback the user receives. What medical benefit does this feedback offer, as it pertains to the bed insert for example?
Fröis: We believe society as a whole benefits from this. The early detection of moisture and wetness leads to better skin situations and ultimately also to fewer secondary conditions such as bedsores. Thanks to the occupancy detection feature, falls and even worse concerns can be prevented. If patients don't end up in a hospital in the first place, it obviously also lowers overall health expenditures. Studies show that it is more cost-efficient and beneficial to invest in prevention versus follow-up care. In other words, cost savings are another big advantage. And needless to say, it also significantly improves the quality of life of those affected if moisture inside the bed is detected in due time. The overall improvement in the quality of care is thus another key benefit.
How should we imagine the production of these types of textiles?
Fröis: The production is similar to the conventional textile process. The supply chain starts with the spinning of fibers. Next, another company uses this to form yarn, which is in turn used by yet another company to produce fabric or a knitted fabric. Depending on the application, the fabric is then enhanced and partly coated with conductive surfaces. We use different materials for our products. These materials range from conventional textile materials such as polyester or cotton to coatings made of stainless steel, silver or carbonate. Whether the product should be washable or whether it generally comes into contact with liquids is also part of the consideration. In this particular instance, we need to ensure that nothing is able to corrode. In the next step, garment confection cuts and lasers the sensors, and then assembles them into a multilayered structure using a sewing machine, until we ultimately created a sensor-equipped textile. One company typically doesn't cover all of these process steps because it would be too expensive and involved. We are very fortunate that we are able to collaborate with a variety of textile companies in the surrounding area, allowing us to cover the entire textile supply chain. Depending on the product and the required quantities we need to manufacture, we are able to choose the best partners and processes to support us. That's also why the business network might look entirely different for our next projects.
At TEXIBLE, sensors are woven directly into the fabric so that they are no longer noticeable to the user. The start-up company uses its own manufacturing method for this.
What is the biggest challenge you face in manufacturing?
Fröis: Managing this type of extensive process chain is certainly the biggest challenge. We collaborate with a variety of different partners, some of whom are located farther away. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to monitor and ensure the quality of the many different aspects in this scenario. After all, at the end of the day we want to end up with a bed insert that meets all quality standards.
What kind of growth potential do you see for this area?
Fröis: I see a huge growth potential! We have noticed that the healthcare sector still has some catching up to do in many aspects. We believe that generally, smart fabric sensors can help simplify the work of healthcare providers – and this is not just referring to our bed insert. We are surrounded by textiles, and the more we integrate functionality into everyday items without it being visible or noticeable to the user, the more potential we see. Having said that, even our bed insert can still be improved when it comes to sensor technology. After all, beds are a key element of healthcare. In the future, sensors can definitely increase the level of safety and quality in routine healthcare settings.
Generally speaking, I see a huge potential in electronic miniaturization. This trend has definitely not progressed to where it has reached its full potential just yet. As long as electronics are too bulky to where they can be felt inside the textile, things still need to be improved. Once sensors in garments are no longer perceived as intrusive and foreign objects, I predict that external wearable devices such as wristbands and trackers will become obsolete. After all, unlike plastic devices, the advantage of clothing is that it is breathable and easy to wear. However, until we get to that point, we will likely continue to see these niche products that are currently immensely popular because miniaturization is quite sophisticated and requires extensive effort. Having said that, I believe that we will notice many new developments in this area in the future.
The interview was conducted by Elena Blume and translated from German by Elena O'Meara. COMPAMED-tradefair.com
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