Art facility for prototyping advanced fabrics

Just over a year after its funding award, a new center for the development and commercialization of advanced fabrics is officially opening its headquarters today in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will be unveiling the first two advanced fabric products to be commercialized from the center’s work.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, that is working to develop and introduce U.S.-made high-tech fabrics that provide services such as health monitoring, communications, and dynamic design. In the process, AFFOA aims to facilitate economic growth through U.S. fiber and fabric manufacturing.

AFFOA’s national headquarters will open today, with an event featuring Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics James MacStravic, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, and AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink. Sample versions of one of the center’s new products, a programmable backpack made of advanced fabric produced in North and South Carolina, will be distributed to attendees at the opening.

AFFOA was created last year with over $300 million in funding from the U.S. and state governments and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fiber-based products. The institute seeks to create “fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change color,” says Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. In short, he says, AFFOA aims to catalyze the creation of a whole new industry that envisions “fabrics as the new software.”

Under Fink’s leadership, the independent, nonprofit organization has already created a network of more than 100 partners, including much of the fabric manufacturing base in the U.S. as well as startups and universities spread across 28 states.

“AFFOA’s promise reflects the very best of MIT: It’s bold, innovative, and daring,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “It leverages and drives technology to solve complex problems, in service to society. And it draws its strength from a rich network of collaborators — across governments, universities, and industries. It has been inspiring to watch the partnership’s development this past year, and it will be exciting to witness the new frontiers and opportunities it will open.”

A “Moore’s Law” for fabrics

While products that attempt to incorporate electronic functions into fabrics have been conceptualized, most of these have involved attaching various types of patches to existing fabrics. The kinds of fabrics and fibers envisioned by — and already starting to emerge from — AFFOA will have these functions embedded within the fibers themselves.

Referring to the principle that describes the very rapid development of computer chip technology over the last few decades, Fink says AFFOA is dedicated to a “Moore’s Law for fibers” — that is, ensuring that there will be a recurring growth in fiber technology in this newly developing field.

A key element in the center’s approach is to develop the technology infrastructure for advanced, internet-connected fabric products that enable new business models for the fabric industry. With highly functional fabric systems, the ability to offer consumers “fabrics as a service” creates value in the textile industry — moving it from producing goods in a price-competitive market, to practicing recurring revenue models with rapid innovation cycles that are now characteristic of high-margin technology business sectors.

From idea to product

To enable rapid transition from idea to product, a high-tech national product-prototyping ecosystem called the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) has been assembled. The FIN is made up of small, medium, and large manufacturers and academic centers that have production capabilities allocated to AFFOA projects, which rapidly execute prototypes and pilot manufacturing of advanced fabric products, decreasing time to market and accelerating product innovation. The product prototypes being rolled out today were executed through this network in a matter of weeks.

The new headquarters in Cambridge, which was renovated for this purpose with state and MIT funding, is called a Fabric Discovery Center (FDC). It was designed to support three main thrusts: a startup accelerator and incubator that provides space, tools, and guidance to new companies working to develop new advanced fabric-based products; a section devoted to education, offering students hands-on opportunities to explore this cutting-edge field and develop the skills to become part of it; and the world’s first end-to-end prototyping facility, with advanced computer-assisted design and fabrication tools, to help accelerate new advanced fabric ideas from the concept to functional products.