Apple Invents Next-Gen Smart Fabrics with Insulated Conductive Strands for a Wide Range of Future Products
Both Apple and Google are working on future products/garments that will incorporate smart fabric. IDC is forecasting that it will be the fourth bestselling wearables product by 2021 with products like Apple Watch, watch bands and AirPods being the leaders. Apple's patents on smart fabrics to date could be found in our archives. Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published two patent applications from Apple that relate to smart fabrics being used in a wide range of possible future smart products from devices to accessories such as computer headsets, headphones, furniture, automotive seats and much more.
#1) Insulated Conductive Strands with Polymer Cores
The first of two Apple patents on smart fabrics is titled "Insulated Conductive Strands with Polymer Cores." One of the inventors behind today's inventions is Daniel Podhajny is a product designer with extensive experience in the textile industry. He came to Apple via Nike's Knit Exploration division and was a Flyknit technology developer. Another is Dan Sunshine, manager, Softgoods Product Designer who was a lead hardware engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Suffice to say that Apple is putting top personnel on this future product line.
Apple notes in their patent filing that their invention relates to items formed from strands of material, and, more particularly, to items formed from strands of material such as insulated conductive strands with dielectric cores.
In the bigger picture, Apple notes that it may be desirable to form items such a bags, clothing, and other items from intertwined strands of material. For example, woven or knitted fabric or braided strands may be used in forming portions of an item.
In some situations, it may be desirable for some or all of a strand of material in an item to be conductive. Conductive strands may be used, for example, to carry signals between circuitry in different portions of an item. Strands such as conductive strands may serve both mechanical functions (e.g., by forming a part of a fabric) and/or electrical functions (e.g., by conveying signals).
Challenges may arise when forming items such as fabric-based items with conductive strands. It is often desirable for conductive strands to exhibit good mechanical properties, such as high strength and flexibility. Because conductive strands may need to carry electrical signals, the resistance of a conductive strand should generally not be too high. Conductive strands should also be compatible with the non-conductive strands in a fabric and should not form undesired short circuits with surrounding structures. If care is not taken, conductive strands in a fabric-based item may be overly fragile, may exhibit poor signal carrying capabilities, may be insufficiently isolated from surrounding structures, or may adversely affect the appearance and feel of the item.
Apple's invention sets out to create items that may include fabric or other materials formed from intertwined strands of material. The item may include circuitry that produces signals. The strands of material may include non-conductive strands and conductive strands. Strands may be intertwined using weaving equipment, knitting equipment, braiding equipment, or other equipment for intertwining strands of material as noted in patent FIG. 5 further below.
One of the goals is to have both non-conductive strands and conductive strands appear close in size (e.g., to minimize or eliminate perceptible differences in the appearance and feel of the non-conductive and conductive strands).
The conductive strands may carry the signals produced by the circuitry. Each conductive strand may have a strand core, a conductive coating on the strand core, and an insulating coating on the conductive coating. The strand cores may be formed from polymers such as para-aramids and aromatic polyesters (as examples).
The conductive coating may be formed from a metal such as silver or other metals. The insulating coating may be a relatively thin insulator such as an insulator with a thickness of less than 5 microns or other suitable thickness. Examples of materials that may be used for forming the insulator include polyvinyl formal, polyester-polyimide, polyamide-polyimide, polyamide, polyimide, polyester, polytetrafluoroethylene, polyurethane, and other polymers.
Polymer strand cores may be formed by extrusion, spinning, or other techniques. Metal coatings for the strand cores may be formed by electrochemical deposition or other metal deposition techniques. Insulating coatings may be formed by applying liquid polymer in a thin layer to the exterior of a strand that has been coated with metal and by applying heat or otherwise curing the liquid polymer.
Apple's patent FIG. 1 presented below is a schematic diagram of an illustrative strand-based item; FIG. 2 is a diagram of a portion of a fabric with conductive strands.
Smart Fabric Products Overview
Strands of material may be incorporated into strand-based items such as strand-based item #10 of FIG. 1 above. The item may be an electronic device or an accessory for an electronic device such as a laptop computer, a computer monitor containing an embedded computer, a tablet computer, a cellular telephone, a media player, or other handheld or portable electronic device, a smaller device such as a wrist-watch device, a pendant device, a headphone or earpiece device, a device embedded in eyeglasses or other equipment worn on a user's head, or other wearable or miniature device, a television, a computer display that does not contain an embedded computer, a gaming device, a navigation device, an embedded system such as a system in which fabric-based item #10 is mounted in a kiosk, in an automobile, airplane, or other vehicle, other electronic equipment, or equipment that implements the functionality of two or more of these devices.
If desired, item #10 may be a removable external case for electronic equipment, may be a strap, may be a wrist band or head band, may be a removable cover for a device, may be a case or bag that has straps or that has other structures to receive and carry electronic equipment and other items, may be a necklace or arm band, may be a wallet, sleeve, pocket, or other structure into which electronic equipment or other items may be inserted, may be part of a chair, sofa, or other seating (e.g., cushions or other seating structures), may be part of an item of clothing or other wearable item (e.g., a hat, belt, wrist band, headband, etc.), or may be any other suitable strand-based item.
Strand-based item #10 may be soft (e.g., item #10 may have a fabric surface that yields to a light touch), may have a rigid feel (e.g., the surface of item 10 may be formed from a stiff fabric), may be coarse, may be smooth, may have ribs or other patterned textures, and/or may be formed as part of a device that has portions formed from non-fabric structures of plastic, metal, glass, crystalline materials, ceramics, or other materials.
Item #10 may interact with electronic equipment or other additional items #18. Items may be attached to item #10 or item #10 and item #18 may be separate items that are configured to operate with each other (e.g., when one item is a case and the other is a device that fits within the case, etc.). Circuitry 16 may include antennas and other structures for supporting wireless communications with item #18. Item #18 may also interact with strand-based item 10 using a wired communications link or other connection that allows information to be exchanged.
In some situations, item #18 may be an electronic device such as an iPhone, Mac or other portable electronic device and strand-based item #10 may form a case or other structure that receives the electronic device in a pocket, an interior cavity, or other portion of item #10.
In other situations, item #18 may be a wrist-watch device or other electronic device and item #10 may be a strap or other strand-based item that is attached to item 18. In still other situations, item #10 may be an electronic device, strands #12 may be used in forming the electronic device, and additional items #18 may include accessories or other devices that interact with item #10.
If desired, magnets and other structures in items #10 and/or #18 may allow items #10 and #18 to interact wirelessly. One item may, for example, include a magnet that produces a magnetic field and the other item may include a magnetic switch or magnetic sensor that responds in the presence of the magnetic field.
Items #10 and #18 may also interact with themselves or each other using pressure-sensitive switches, pressure sensors, force sensors, proximity sensors, light-based sensors, interlocking electrical connectors, etc.
The strands that make up item #10 may be intertwined using any suitable strand intertwining equipment. For example, strands #12 may be woven together to form a fabric. The fabric may have a plain weave, a satin weave, a twill weave, or variations of these weaves, may be a three-dimensional woven fabric, or may be other suitable woven fabric.
In Apple's patent FIG. 3 shown below we're able to see a diagram of illustrative equipment of the type that may be used in forming insulated conductive strands with dielectric cores and strand-based items that include insulated conductive strands with dielectric cores in accordance with an embodiment; FIG. 5 is a side view of illustrative equipment for adding an insulating coating to a conductive strand.
Apple's patent FIG. 9 presented above is a flow chart of illustrative steps involved in forming conductive strands with dielectric cores and insulating coatings and in forming strand-based items from such strands.
Apple's patent application was filed four months ago in March 2018 and published today by USPTO. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of smart fabric-based products to market is unknown at this time.
#2) Warp Knit Fabrics with Variable Path Weft Strands
The second of two Apple patents on smart fabrics is titled "Warp Knit Fabrics with Variable Path Weft Strands." The second patent covers some of the same information about what products Apple may consider using smart fabrics, but acknowledges that some articles will require warp knit style equipment that is able to provide strength and rigidity to a fabric. Being that smart fabric is being created a next-generation of warp knit equipment may be required to produce next-gen products.
Apple notes that warp knit fabrics allow for a variety of fabric constructions and can be knitted into three-dimensional structures with multiple layers.
Apple's patent abstract stated that "An item may include fabric or other materials formed from intertwined strands of material. The strands of material may include non-conductive strands and conductive strands. The strands may be intertwined by a warp knitting machine to produce a warp knit fabric. The warp knit fabric may include intertwined warp strands and weft insertion strands that are inserted amongst the warp strands. The weft insertion strands may extend across less than all of the warp strands. The weft insertion strands may include parallel segments that each extend across a different portion of the warp strands. The segments of weft insertion strands may have different widths relative to one another and relative to the width of the fabric. The weft insertion strands may be inserted into the warp knitting machine across the warp strands using a weft insertion device that is positioned by a computer-controlled positioner."
Apple's patent FIG. 2 presented below is a top view of a portion of a warp knit fabric that may include conductive strands; FIG. 4 is a diagram of illustrative equipment for forming warp knit fabrics having weft insertion strands with different patterns.
Lastly, Apple's patent FIG. 10 above is a perspective view of illustrative equipment including a weft insertion device on which weft insertion strands with variable widths are placed in a predetermined pattern.
Apple's second smart fabric patent 20180195218 was also filed for in March 2018 and published today by USPTO.
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