There is yarn being spooled out by equipment on the factory floor at Myant Inc.’s 80,000-square-foot facility near Pearson Airport in Toronto. There are knitting machines, with ready-to-wear garments emerging from them. But you’ll find no rows of workers at sewing machines or scraps of fabric or many other trappings of a conventional textile factory. Which is how the company’s executives want it, because Myant’s mission isn’t to make clothes but to build the world’s first textile-based computing platform.
Much of the innovative genius in Myant’s approach to textile manufacturing is in the details you can’t readily see. The company’s first clothing brand, for example, is an underwear line called Skiin, which is made of yarn that comes not from spun cotton or the wool of a sheep but from conductive polymers produced in a process akin to 3-D printing. This yarn is embedded with nanoparticles –microscopic sensors that allow the resulting textile to send and receive information, detect the body’s vital signs and deliver heat and pressure, like a knitted Fitbit.
The knitting machines at Myant are fully automated robots, and the few dozen employees on the factory floor are not weavers but technicians and engineers who specialize in rapidly testing new applications for the company’s high-tech textiles. The designs emerge as much from the work of software developers layering different functions into the system as fashion designers making style choices. And the result is not just a new kind of garment but a new way of thinking about how textiles are manufactured and the role the finished products play in daily life – one in which fast, inexpensive mass production is replaced by limitless customization.
“We can produce this product right here in Toronto and be very competitive anywhere,” says Tony Chahine, Myant’s founder and CEO. “Because it’s no longer about cheap labour. This is about smart labour and about smart machines.”
Chahine wasn’t intending to get into the garment manufacturing business when he launched Myant in 2010. An electrical engineer by training, he first founded a battery manufacturer after moving to Canada from Lebanon in the early 1990s. For this new venture, his goal was simply to enable more people to participate in the emerging world of digital health care and the Internet of Things.
The Myant team soon seized on a medium everyone already interacts with almost constantly, from the clothes they pull on each morning to the bed sheets they fall asleep on every night. Fabric, explains Dan Herman, Myant’s vice-president of strategy and partnerships, “is around us 100% of the time. So it’s essentially the most ubiquitous form factor.”
The manufacturing of textiles – not just clothes but car seat covers, household fabrics, flooring and bedding – was far from a hotbed of innovation. As Chahine points out, fashion design students still train on sewing machines that wouldn’t look out of place on a 19th-century shop floor. Innovations in materials science, however, have exploded in the 21st century, and Chahine found patents sitting on shelves at universities across North America that enabled him to introduce nanotechnology, digital printing, Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence to the ancient craft of knitting.
Myant’s Skiin underwear, expected to hit retailers later this year, reinvents the most universal of garments, embedding boxers, briefs and leggings with a broad range of fitness and health functions. Chahine compares the conductive yarn in Skiin products to the conduits on a circuit board, linking nano-scale sensors (which detect bodily functions) and actuators (which can deliver physical stimuli such as heat or pressure), akin to the gel electrodes used in hospitals. Skiin undergarments can gather physiological data, like body temperature, heart rate, hydration and stress. The garment’s actuators, meanwhile, provide therapeutic functions, such as heat – and they can learn about the wearer’s unique physiology and health over time. “We see a future where textiles actually get to know you,” says Chahine.
The potential applications go well beyond underwear. Myant is exploring partnerships with clothing, furniture and auto manufacturers. Imagine a car seat cover that alerts you when you’re drowsy or a mattress pad that can monitor your sleep patterns. It’s a platform, Chahine argues, that could replace everything from blood pressure monitors to household scales, merging countless single-purpose gadgets into one multipurpose device – not unlike the way the smartphone erased the need for cameras and calculators. “There will be trillions of dollars of stand-alone features that will be consolidated,” says Chahine.