Our focus group was interested in the stumbling blocks preventing e-textiles using the techniques used by those at camp from being manufactured for the mass market. We all came from different backgrounds with different experiences in manufacturing electronics or textiles.
Documenting the Manufacturing Process
We started by listing out all the known processes that turn a raw material into either a textile or electronics product. The longer our list, the more we realised we needed to include. We certainly didn’t cover every process, but we made a good start. We repeated this exercise three times within our focus group during the week and then once with the the entire camp during our presentation at the end of the week.
YouTube videos proved to be extremely useful in showing how products are made. Here is a playlist of videos we compiled showing the steps of electronics manufacture:
What Stops Scaling?
There was also discussions into how economic models are shaped by industrial processes and the people involved with them. We delved into several case studies with camp participants outside our group to gather their experience with trying to scale up production of an e-textile product. We talked with Rachel Freire about the mi.mu gloves and with Kate Hartmann about the Vega Edge.
We also posed the question of what would stop you from bringing a product to market at a mass scale to the full camp and gathered the responses, all which are shown below. The responses ranged from practical limitations such as access to capital and inability to transfer hand making techniques to cost-effective scalable processes to a stated lack of interest in building products.
After listing the processes, we looked at commonalities between electronics and textiles, trying to draw together similarities. We highlighted processes or machines that shared some kind of attribute such as UV exposures for circuit etching resists and silkscreen printing processes or pick and place machines and embroidery machines that places embellishments like beads.
We concluded that the greatest potential was in adapting electronics to be placed and attached using textile machines. We explored what those new processes could be. One possibility was to weave with conductive, but insulated threads. The insulation would have a chemical composition that would allow it to be etched away, similar to a devoré etching to allow selective threads along the warp and weft to become electrically connected.
Exploring Through Making
We could restrict ourselves to markers and Post-Its for only so long. We needed to explore some of our ideas through physical making, even if we knew those implementations would be imperfect since we had limited access to tools and materials.
We learned about machines that can automatically place and sew beads or sequins onto fabric. That led us to consider how solder formed into beads could be strategically placed using an unmodified machine. The beads could then be heated at a later stage to solder other components to the fabric. We had discussed (and did initial experimentations) with a sewing machine with a heated needle to melt the solder.
The second experimentation was inspired by batik, devoré, and ikat. We felt that thread that was solderable and conductive, but with a removable insulation was a missing material. We covered selected areas of Karl Grimm thread with batik wax and then covered the whole thread in silicone. The silicone over the wax easily peeled away and the the underlying wax could be ironed off, exposing the conductive, solderable thread at the core.
This didn’t result in a thread that would be usable in any kind of textile, but it was a useful exercise in considering the ideal properties of a conductive thread.