Photos by M. Scott Brauer for MIT

The U.S. Department of Defense has tapped a broad coalition of manufacturers, universities, and nonprofits to spearhead an ambitious new project to accelerate textiles innovation in the United States. Led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Advanced Functional Fibers of America Institute will draw upon more than $250 million in public-private investments, plus $75 million in federal resources, over an initial five-year period. As the eighth Manufacturing Innovation Institute established to date, the hub will be headquartered in Cambridge, in close vicinity to the MIT campus and its U.S. Army-funded Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, as well as the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center.

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Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics


The new institute will harness the Northeast region’s community of textile manufacturing entrepreneurs and innovators to “underpin a national fibers and textiles manufacturing ecosystem and position the United States for growing leadership in this critical technology area,” according the a statement from the White House on Friday.

“The institute will bring together nontraditional partners to integrate fibers and yarns with integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells, and other devices and advanced materials to create textiles and fabrics that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color, and more,” the Office of the Press Secretary said.

It cited, as examples, partnerships between the likes of Bose, Intel, and nanofiber manufacturer FibeRio with more traditional garment-industry players such as Warwick Mills, Buhler Yarns, and New Balance.

Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, and one of the key figures behind the institute, says that the partnership has the potential to create a whole new industry based on breakthroughs in fiber materials and manufacturing.

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Although clothing represents “one of the most ancient forms of human expression,” Fink says it’s poised to undergo a “fabric revolution.”

Collaboration, he stresses, will be key.

The partnership currently includes 72 manufacturing groups, 32 universities, 16 members of industry, and 26 startup incubators across 27 states and Puerto Rico.

“We believe that partnerships—with industry and government and across academia—are critical to our capacity to create positive change,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reifs. “Our nation has no shortage of smart, ambitious people with brilliant new ideas. But if we want a thriving economy, producing more and better jobs, we need more of those ideas to get to market faster.”

In New York, Manufacture New York, a Brooklyn-based incubator-cum-production-facility, will direct skills-based training programs and registered apprenticeships with the help of the Fashion Institute of Technology and other local and national educational institutions.

“We believe the AFFOA Manufacturing Innovation Institute will effectively bridge the current supply-chain gap between technology enablers and commercial products in smart fabrics,” said Bob Bland, founder and CEO of Manufacture New York. “It will be instrumental in bringing technologies to market by fostering innovation in manufacturing and advanced engineering.”

+ Massachusetts Institute of Technology