Defense chief announces $317M hub to integrate tech into textiles

Defense chief announces $317M hub to integrate tech into textiles

The Pentagon envisions outfitting its troops with clothing that detects radiation or changes color, just a couple of the possible unions of technology and textiles that could be developed at a $317 million manufacturing hub announced Friday.

“As I often say, we in the Pentagon need to think outside of our five-sided box and formulate new ways to keep that enduring American technological edge,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech Friday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Right here, right now, we’re taking another step forward.”

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The Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Alliance, as the program has been dubbed, will be run by MIT and consist of a consortium of 89 universities, manufacturers and nonprofits.

The Pentagon will provide $75 million in funding, and $250 million will come from nonfederal sources.

Among the companies participating, the Pentagon highlighted audio equipment maker Bose, computer chipmaker Intel, nanofiber manufacturer FibeRio, protective textiles manufacturer Warwick Mills, yarn producer Buhler Yarns and shoe company New Balance.

The idea is to infuse clothing with technology such as integrated circuits, LEDs and solar cells so the fabrics can react to the environment, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color and other functions.

For example, the Pentagon hopes to weave lightweight sensors into nylon parachutes to detect small tears that could expand and be deadly in midair, Carter said.

Electronics embedded in troops’ uniforms could potentially detect chemicals or radiation, know when a troop needs an antibacterial bandage or power the other electronics carried by troops, he added.

“The reality is that as I stand here, we don’t know all the advances this new technology is going to make possible,” Carter said. “It’s another reason why America and American’s military must get there first.”

The program is part of the Pentagon’s push to bring the technological innovation of the private sector to the military. Carter previously announced a similar manufacturing hub in San Jose, Calif., focused on flexible electronics. 

Both the MIT hub and the San Jose one are also part of the Obama administration’s larger National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which started in 2012 and now has six hubs through the Pentagon working on technologies such as three-dimensional printing and lightweight metals.