Asahi Kasei dons 'smart clothing' in move beyond textiles
Japanese chemical maker eyes such uses as defibrillator vests
TOKYO -- Asahi Kasei will develop "smart clothes" that can monitor wearers' health and maybe save their life, joining the up-and-coming business field amid saturation in Japan's textile market.
The Tokyo-based chemical company lags competitors in this field -- it aims to enter as soon as next year -- but seeks to catch up by narrowing its focus to medical equipment, a segment where the need for approval from safety regulators poses a high hurdle.
Asahi Kasei will partner with U.S. subsidiary Zoll Medical, the maker of the LifeVest wearable defibrillator, to apply the Japanese company's Roboden elastic wires to wearable devices. Potential uses include critical care and health monitoring. Product development will take place at Asahi Kasei's Shiga Prefecture textile research facility and at Zoll's U.S. research hub.
While Japan's textile market has plateaued, demand for smart clothing is picking up, promising a potential new source of income for the industry. According to market research firm Data Resources, the smart-clothing market is poised to surge from 10 billion yen ($91.4 million) in 2015 to about 400 billion yen in 2021.
Toray Industries, known for carbon fiber, and telecom operator Nippon Telegraph & Telephone have developed the Hitoe polyester material that can detect faint electrical signals from the body's surface. As well as measuring heart rate during sporting activities, the fabric is also used to measure the physical strain on factory workers laboring in hot environments. Hoping to capture new demand, Toray plans to begin sales of medical-use clothing for electrocardiography this year.
Textile maker Toyobo's film-like Cocomi material contains a conductive layer that functions like an electrode. It is being tested in wearable products for bus and truck drivers with the aim of preventing sleeping at the wheel. Kurabo Industries has also announced plans to make smart clothes. In May, the fabric producer began working with a transport operator to test a product aimed at preventing heatstroke.