_TECHNOLOGY Smart Fabrics

_A Factory for Future Fabrics

A regional manufacturing lab established by Drexel in collaboration with the federally funded Advanced Functional Fabrics of America will work with public-private partners to develop new “textile devices” and foster an American edge in fabric manufacturing.

_Genevieve Dion

Dion is professor and director of Drexel’s Center for Functional Fabrics.

Imagine a computer keyboard knit from yarn, embedded with touch sensors and bluetooth, so soft and flexible it could be crumpled into a pocket. Such a device would be cloth-like, yet highly technological and functional. Imagine how a class of textiles like that could transform everyday life and product design across multiple industries.

It sounds like science fiction, but interdisciplinary researchers working with Drexel’s Center for Functional Fabrics, in partnership with a collaboration announced in 2016 with the Department of Defense-funded Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), are at the forefront of developing the models, standards, design and fabrication methods necessary to stimulate a domestic manufacturing industry around functional fibers.

“Functional fibers,” unlike traditional fabrics, integrate yarns and fibers engineered to see, hear, sense and communicate. Even before the AFFOA partnership was announced, teams of computer scientists, engineers, designers and experts in medicine and nanomaterials at Drexel were developing products such as a bellyband for respiration and uterine contraction monitoring, a fabric touchpad, a haptic glove for hand therapy and textile fibers that can store energy.


The new Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center will be available to public-private research partners investigating functional fabric processes and prototypes.

Through the partnership with AFFOA, Drexel helps universities in the mid-Atlantic region collaborate on the research and development of futuristic fibers with startups, venture capital groups, nonprofits and industry partners such as Nike, New Balance, VF Corp. and Steelcase.

In 2017, Drexel further announced that it is establishing a state-of-the-art, end-to-end advanced regional manufacturing facility capable of developing functional fabric prototypes for pilot-stage production.

“Functional fibers” integrate yarns and fibers engineered to see, hear, sense and communicate.

It will be called the “Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center” and will be overseen by the Center for Functional Fabrics on behalf of mid-Atlantic members of the AFFOA manufacturing network. It is AFFOA’s first national hub outside of Massachusetts; AFFOA’s long-term strategy is to open similar centers across the country. 

“The Fabric Discovery Center will build upon Pennsylvania’s rich textile history and bring together academic and industrial expertise statewide to create an ecosystem that supports innovation, collaboration and education,” says Genevieve Dion, associate professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and director of the Center for Functional Fabrics. “Our transdisciplinary approach at Drexel and the Center for Functional Fabrics will help resolve fundamental manufacturing problems, leading to the successful design and production of truly functional textiles. Ultimately, this will stimulate job creation activities and workforce development for an advanced functional fabrics industry.”