Active Auxetic: The Material That Tightens For Warmth

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab has developed a new fashion tech innovation that could change the way we dress forever. Active auxetic is a smart material that reacts to temperature, opening itself when warm and closing itself when cold. This effectively means no more ‘jumper on, jumper off’ situations that can be irritating on a day where the temperature is up and down. And for the fashion-conscious, it also means being able to wear your favourite clothing item, whatever the weather.

Essentially, active auxetic behaves in a similar way to your skin. Pores expand or contract according to the outside temperature, in order to regulate body temperature.

The reason that we are so interested in this active auxetic fashion tech is that it lends itself to an array of design and customisation options. According to the MIT Self-Assembly Lab’s co-creator, Skylar Tibbits:

“There’s a legacy of active materials in fashion … You can look at Hussein Chalayan, Issey Miyake, or Suzanne Lee where there are new materials that grow, transform, adapt, fold, self-fold. This would fit well within that. But there’s also high-performance clothing … Smarter garments tend to be wearable devices and textiles that have electronics and sensors and batteries and motors. But I think this points toward a more material version of smart garments.”

Such fashion tech innovations as this will allow fashion designers to open the doors to new design possibilities, with the added bonus that active auxetic is a very customisation-friendly material.

This adaptability means that there is a wide scope for the applications of active auxetic. Beyond fashion tech clothing, it will also be useful for everything from packaging to crash testing.

Active Auxetics from Self-Assembly Lab, MIT on Vimeo.

The material has been developed by a process of restructuring existing materials, such as wood, leather, and carbon fibre – as well as some other new fabrics – which are then tested in different environmental conditions. As well as temperature, MIT also tested the material at different levels of moisture, light, and pressure.

The heat-active auxetic materials that MIT has developed differ from standard auxetics in one fundamental way. The heat-active version does not require any human interaction, no motor, or any outside intervention other than the temperature itself, in order to do its job. The material, however, can be programmed (yes, programmed!) so that it can be customised to tweak the temperature at which its ‘pores’ open and close. With its ‘pores’ open, the material increases cold air ventilation to the skin, thus cooling the body. In colder temperatures, the ‘pores’ contract, sealing in heat and providing insulation to keep the body warm.

Active auxetic is not the only fashion tech development to have come out of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab. A couple of years ago, Tibbits worked with industrial designers, Christophe Guberan and Carlo Clopath on a project for exhibition at Design London Museum in which they used the MIT Lab to create a pair of ‘active shoes’.

The ‘Minimal Shoe’ project, as it was dubbed, addressed the challenge of creating a 3D printing system that could be used to make a shoe that would transform under certain conditions.

ACTIVE SHOES Upper and Sole from Christophe Guberan on Vimeo.

The 3D printing system used extruded plastic, and fused deposition modelling, to programme patterns onto stretched textiles. Once the stretch is released, the material then morphs into a secondary shape.

Guberan states:

“We can shrink the size of the shoe, have it contract around your feet. 3D printing [entire] shoes is quite long and inefficient, so we minimized the amount of 3D printing used. It’s quite interesting to say that we don’t have to 3D print the entire shoe, but we can add to existing material.”

Guberan’s comments hint at the possibility that such malleable footwear is ripe for customisation. This is further emphasised when he goes on to say:

“We can have active textiles that self-transform, but also make it efficient so that it could be feasible to produce these because it’s a minimal amount of time and material to get the textile highly active. Whatever pattern, type, and thickness of the material you use, those become the geometric program, so that when you release the textile it jumps into shape based on what you printed. So, that’s how we can get the right shape and textures.”

Such 3D printing is great for changing patterns on shoes, for example. It also means that existing footwear can be modified in order to customise it to customer specifications. However, this is not the only way that such customisable shoes can be created. Such a process can also be implemented on a production line, applying bonding and lamination into pre-stretched textile in a similar way.

At the heart of the Self-Assembly Lab’s ethos is the study and creation of structures that can be ordered from disparate parts into a whole through local interaction throughout the elements of the structure. As their website states, they “have demonstrated that this phenomenon is scale-independent and can be utilized for self-constructing and manufacturing systems at nearly every scale”. Though the Lab works with a wide range of different disciplines that fall within this ‘self-assembly’ modus operandi, the two examples we have explored above fall under the category ‘Programmable Materials’, and, more specifically, 4D printing.

The fourth dimension is time, which applies to these projects in that they transform when subjected to energy, which – of course – make their transformation one that occurs in the realm of temporality. The 4D Printing: Multi-Material Shape Change category, identified on the MIT Self-Assembly Lab’s website, exemplifies a new mode for printing customisable smart materials.

The process entails the use of multi-material prints, which have the capability of transforming in shape – from one state to another. This functionality occurs directly from the print-bed of the Stratasys Connex printer that is used for this process. The fashion tech applications are many, exceeding the capabilities exemplified in both active auxetic and in the ‘Minimal Shoe’ project. Without the use of complex electro-mechanical devices, garments and other items can be customised in direct response to user demand, and against fluctuating environments (as we have seen above).

Fashion tech is a fascinating and growing area. As advancements in technology continue to alter the way that we live, work, and play, it is only natural that the way we wear our clothes will change, too. Developments in the area of smart fabrics, 3D and 4D printing, and the integration of AI and AR into clothing, are all changing the ways in which fashion designers can realise the designs of their imaginations. And beyond the design studio, such fashion tech innovations widen the scope for customers themselves to customise the clothing they wear to their own, individual specifications.

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