The University of Texas at Austin will participate in a new $317 million partnership to accelerate innovation in high-tech, U.S.-based manufacturing involving fibers and textiles, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced April 1.

The partnership, named Advanced Functional Fibers of America (AFFOA), has won a national competition for federal funding to create the latest Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which will be based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The partnership includes 31 universities, 16 industry members, 72 manufacturing entities and 26 startup incubators spread across 28 states. UT Austin is the only university in Texas to participate.

This is the eighth Manufacturing Innovation Institute established through President Barack Obama’s Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The new partnership will focus on breakthroughs in fiber materials and manufacturing, including developing fibers and fabrics made from them with the ability to see, hear and sense their surroundings; communicate; store and convert energy; monitor health; control temperature; and change their color.

Jonathan Chen, a professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel, will be the university’s primary investigator in the partnership and will be joined by six other faculty members at UT Austin:

  • Mourad Krifa and Bugao Xu also in the Division of Textiles and Apparel
  • Wei Li and Joseph Koo in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • Ken Diller and Janeta Zoldan in the Department of Biomedical Engineering

UT Austin contributors have expertise to offer in the creation of multifunctional “nanocomposite” clothing that regulates body temperatures; digital body scanning to promote perfect-fitting clothes; biodegradable plastics useful for car interiors; and other areas including active healing wound dressings.

Although the program is funded through the Department of Defense, Krifa notes the applications could be broader. For example, new fabrics developed to heat or cool soldiers in uniform could also be used in consumer apparel to reduce heating and air conditioning costs.

“The specific project is creating a dynamic for a new industry that would take these innovations and benefit the general population using the same approaches and technology,” Krifa says.

The new partnership will receive $75 million in federal funding out of a total of $317 million though cost sharing among the Department of Defense, industrial partners, venture capitalists and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The funding will cover a five-year period and will be administered through the new, independent, nonprofit organization set up for the purpose. The amount UT Austin receives during the five years will be contingent on approval from the new nonprofit for proposed research projects. The partnership, which will focus on both developing new technologies and training the workforce needed to operate and maintain these production systems, also includes a network of community colleges and professional development institutes.

In addition to UT Austin and MIT, the new partnership will include industry representatives such as DuPont, Warwick Mills, NextFlex, Steelcase and Corning, and academic institutions such as Drexel University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Georgia.

As explained in the original call for proposals to create this institute, the aim is to ensure “that America leads in the manufacturing of new products from leading edge innovations in fiber science, commercializing fibers and textiles with extraordinary properties. Known as technical textiles, these modern day fabrics and fibers boast novel properties ranging from being incredibly lightweight and flame resistant, to having exceptional strength. Technical textiles have wide-ranging applications, from advancing capabilities of protective gear allowing fire fighters to battle the hottest flames, to ensuring that a wounded soldier is effectively treated with an antimicrobial compression bandage and returned safely.”

In addition to the Department of Defense, a wide range of industries are expected to benefit from the revolutionary fibers and textiles, including apparel, consumer products, automotive, medical devices and consumer electronics.

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cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students
cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students