“I love it when we know a project could really help someone, and our technology can make it more comfortable or work better”
A Q&A with E-textile Expert Maddy Maxey
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview with spoke with Maddy Maxey, the Founder and Technical Lead at LOOMIA, an e-textiles manufacturer and innovator.
Maddy has spent 5 years researching the flexible, creasable, drapable and washable circuitry layer that makes LOOMIA’s products so unique and versatile. She is dedicated to bringing flexible circuitry to industrial scales of production and to spreading the word about electronic textiles. Her portfolio includes e-textiles workshops and prototypes for The North Face, Google, Adidas, and more. We talked to her about the challenges of designing with e-textiles, applications for e-textiles that she’s excited about, and how she ended up at the intersection of design and technology.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: Right now what’s taking up a lot of my mental bandwidth is the business side of things, like How do we repeat our sales cycle and How do we price things? On the product side we are working on some new circuits for wearable technology applications that are really stretchy and thin, and hopefully people will like them. So that’s the fun product stuff and then I’m knee-deep in a lot of the business development stuff right now.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: One of my favorite projects is a glove that we did for a robot for a company called Festo. This glove has a bunch of pressure sensors in it that give the robot a sense of touch so that when it grabs something, it knows how much pressure to apply. Robots don’t have skin, so when they grab something they don’t know if they’re actually grabbing it properly, or if it’s about to slip and fall, or if they’re going to smash it. That was a really fun and challenging project as an application of electronic textiles that people wouldn’t expect. People think about e-textiles and fashion or aesthetics, but I think some of the coolest applications of these materials are in places that have constant electromechanical problems, like robotics. It was a chance to show, Look at all the cool stuff these materials can do.
Q: Could you walk us through what e-textiles are?
A: People have different definitions but we [at LOOMIA] view them as an enabling technology that allows you to add functionality to soft surfaces. We view e-textiles as circuits: very soft, flexible circuits. That they behave like fabric lets you functionalize that textile or soft surface at the end of the day. There’s a distinction between viewing an e-textile as a circuit or a fabric because the approach to making the material is very different. You can view it as a fabric that needs some electronic function or as a circuit that needs the mechanical properties of a fabric. We’re more in the circuit-that-moves-like-fabric category. That’s how we’ve gone about all of our development and testing, and everything that relates to the product.
Q: What are some of the key challenges you face as an e-textile designer?
A: There are lots and lots of challenges. Part of what’s tricky about electronics is that things go wrong and you don’t know why. You can’t see the problems. One of the hardest parts about e-textiles is that things mysteriously don’t work, and you don’t know if you have a bad connection, you don’t know if you’re getting noise from somewhere, you don’t know if it’s user error. Software and electronics have these crazy debugging processes. In a lot of other spaces you can just see what the problem is. If you have a shirt that doesn’t fit right, you can see the issues—it’s tight here, we need more space here—and know what to do.
Another challenge is that the space is really new, so people don’t know that an e-textile could solve their problems. There’s a translational aspect to these technologies. I’m talking to engineers who have never heard of an e-textile and highlighting why it might be useful for them, or talking to a designer who has heard of an e-textile and explaining why you can’t just put it on your design. You have to create the circuit, which needs to be customized for most applications. So there are education and engineering challenges.
Q: What are some applications for e-textiles that excite you the most?
A: I’m super excited about automotive interior applications for electronic textiles. There’s some serious engineering involved but there’s also a lot of design. At the end of the day, you want the car’s user interface to look cool. You can get a wow factor but there’s a lot of rigor in getting there. I think it’s super interesting. I’m also excited about warming products in general. When you give someone a heated glove or heated pad and they put it on, there’s that instant feeling of, Oh wow, this feels nice! Then there are some healthcare and wellness applications. They’re specific to customers but I love it when we know a project could really help someone, and our technology can make it more comfortable or work better or whatever they’re looking for. I’m excited about those categories.
Q: Why did you choose to design for designers rather than consumers?
A: We’re not a team of marketers, and to have a successful consumer product—in most cases—you need to spend most of your time marketing. That’s not what we’re excited about or necessarily good at. We are also all either engineers or designers or a combination of the two on our team, so we are able to work with engineers and designers and sell to engineers and designers, and understand their problems. To me it’s cool and feels useful versus if the everyday activity of the business was trying to sell another X to consumers. This is more where our hearts are: selling to engineers and designers and working on the B2B side.
Q: Which skills from your background in fashion design serve you well in your current work?
A: This is kind of a cliché but in my experience fashion was like: Make it work. You learn how to very quickly source materials, assess materials, work with them, put together colorways, and get all of the pieces in one place at one time for something to happen. A lot of that spirit is there, especially when we’re prototyping concepts. Okay how do we make this happen? Yes, we need to eventually get all the way to the end, to E, but let’s just tackle A to B first. We’ll make it work and then we can handle the next phase when it comes. Then there’s also the design portion. I do think people care about that, even if they say they don’t. Even if customers say I don’t care what color it is or what it looks like, I do think there’s a visceral reaction to things that look nice. Putting that extra time in to make a design look nice is something that we always try to do. That also comes from my design training.
Q: Could you tell us about your path to this space at the intersection of design and technology?
A: I’ve always really loved making things. My dad was an aerospace engineer and he was, strangely enough, into making curtains and stuff for our house. He had a sewing machine and I loved using it. He saw that I really like to make stuff so he said that I should be a fashion designer or an architect. I thought, Okay, well, I’ll be a fashion designer because I can get started right now. I have this machine, why wait? Let’s go!
I interned and worked a lot in the industry. At design school I felt disenchanted because we were in sewing classes and I was like, I trained, I already know how to sew! I really wanted to learn some new stuff so I took a web development class to learn how to make websites for my design work. That’s what got me into the entrepreneurial and tech space. I realized that you can take fabric and make a shirt, or you can write some code and make a website. It’s like these little building blocks. I thought it was really exciting.
That combination of things meant that I started getting hired for a lot of wearable technology and intersectional projects. That’s what led to my interest in making this scalable e-textile material for LOOMIA: I’d work on customer projects and they would be flimsy and couldn’t scale. And I thought, Maybe there’s a material that could help. I also went back to school and got my degree in material science and engineering.
Q: Women are a minority in design as well as technology, and women of color even more so. How has this influenced your experience in the industry?
A: It’s a little difficult because you never know if you’re not getting something because someone has assumptions about you, or if you just didn’t win the bid, or if you didn’t win the business for a very quantitative reason. I may honestly never know. But I think that there are certain things that I’ve really enjoyed, such as getting to work with a very female-leaning team and feeling like we take care of each other. I don’t know what the alternate reality would be. I also know that there’s a part of me that doesn’t care if somebody judges me because of my race or how I look. I think our products are really good and I feel like I can convince them to give us a try anyway.
Q: What do you see in the future of e-textiles?
A: I really hope that e-textiles will be viewed as a circuit technology that’s in the toolbox. Right now, engineers making products might think, Oh, I can use a flex product or get printed circuit board. I really hope that at some point, they’ll realize, Oh or I could use an e-textile for this, because it would make sense for my application. If they could become a commonplace product development tool, that would be a really exciting direction for these materials.
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