Drexel Opens New Center to Study Fabrics of the Future

The official ribbon cutting kicks off the Grand Opening of the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center.

The official ribbon cutting kicks off the grand opening of the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center.

Pictured from left: Provost Brian Blake; Aleister Saunders, senior vice provost for research; Tracy Frost, directorOSD ManTech and DoD Manufacturing USA Institutes; Stephen Luckowski, government program manager, US Army ARDEC, AFFOA; Geneviève Dion, director, Center for Functional Fabrics and Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center; Neil Weaver, secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development; President John Fry

Photos by Shira Yudkoff.

Drexel University’s newest epicenter of innovation and discovery has opened its doors, and the debut of the Center for Functional Fabrics and the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center was anything but “soft.”

University administrators, trustees, faculty and friends of the Center, as well as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, representatives from the administration of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and the Department of Defense’s Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy attended the opening ceremony on Sept. 25 for the 10,000-square-foot, $7 million research and development space. Located at 3101 Market Street in a building once used for city archives,  the state-of-the-art center is a joint endeavor funded by federal and state government organizations to support the creation and advanced manufacturing of innovative textile technology.

“This is a place to engage, collaborate and lead innovation in the field of advanced manufacturing of functional fabrics,” said President John Fry at the event. “Ten thousand feet in the heart of our campus, it demonstrates the larger vision that our University has for University City. It’s located in Schuylkill Yards, an innovation district where researchers and startups and companies are coming together to create and grow Philadelphia’s economy.”

Attendees were shown around the manufacturing portion of the space, which features a main equipment room outfitted for flat and circular weft knitting, warp knitting, weaving and yarn customization. The center also includes spaces for digital design and programming, systems integration and assembly, yarn and textile testing, finishing, dyeing and climate-controlled archival storage. The center’s new home was also designed as a mixed-use space that brings together laboratory and manufacturing facilities with office, training and technology exhibit space.

Staff and student workers from the center were also on hand to demonstrate select uses of the technology, including two computer games and one musical keyboard controlled by gesture sensitive functional textile touchpads, all of which were created through student projects.

Mayor Kenney said these and the many other uses for functional fabrics being explored at Drexel — from the smart fabric bellyband which monitors contractions and breathing in pregnant mothers to fabrics being developed to protect, monitor and communicate with soldiers and other emergency personnel — are amazing, and will help put Philadelphia back on the map as a leader in advanced textile manufacturing.

“It is fitting that this new center is located in Schuylkill Yards, an area known for innovation, expanding upon Pennsylvania’s already rich textile industry,” Kenney said. “Advanced textiles will change the way we create clothing, furniture and more, beyond the scope of what’s already been done.”

The Center for Functional Fabrics expansion includes the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center, which was created to support Drexel’s role as the regional leader of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America’s network of fabric discovery centers. The PA FDC engages, collaborates and innovates with government, companies and entrepreneurs taking advanced-textile ideas from concept to prototype to scalable products. These facilities will also prepare America’s workforce for jobs in this growing sector through education and training.

With the support of $1.5 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Drexel was able to expand its state-of-the-art prototyping facility, which now includes seven Shima Seiki flat weft-bed knitting machines, two circular weft-bed knitting machines, a Comez warp knitting machine, a CCI Tech weaving suite and a variety of yarn-twisting machines. The center also has a number of advanced design and production capabilities, such as a 3D body scanner, an ultrasonic sewing machine, a seam sealer, textile testing machines and advanced sewing machines.

Neil Weaver, the executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, said the state’s funding of the center’s modern machinery and technology was aimed at accelerating the growth of advanced fibers and functional fabrics in the defense and commercial markets, and that Drexel is at the helm of these initiatives.

“This center will put our Commonwealth on the forefront of developing innovative and advanced functional fabrics, will create 21st century jobs, and push our economy forward,” Weaver said.

Director Geneviève Dion leads tour guests, including Neil Weaver (far left), Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development from the office of Governor Tom Wolf, as they view the manufacturing space for the first time before entering. The machinery/technology in the space was funded in part by a $1.5 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Genevieve Dion, director of the Center for Functional Fabrics and the PA Fabric Discovery Center and professor of design in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, closed out the ceremony reminding attendees that the first knitting machine under her purview at Drexel was in a small closet where only two people could fit comfortably.

“That was 10 years ago, so I really hope that you see the difference between then and now,” she said, eliciting laughs from the audience.

Dion founded the Shima Seiki Haute Tech Lab at the ExCITe Center in 2012, pulling together a transdisciplinary team to bring in national funding for advanced functional fabrics research. She said it’s very emotional for her to see where they are today. It’s this type of transdisciplinary research and the collaborative environment found at Drexel, she added, which has helped, and will continue to help, push the center and its initiatives forward.

“We can create these amazing new textile devices, but how are we going to make sure that they’re not gadgets? How are we going to make sure that they have meaning and truly improve lives?” Dion mused. “To accomplish that, it doesn’t just take one person. It takes an enormous community and a team from so many different disciplines. That’s the thing that’s been really wonderful about the support at Drexel, to be able to demonstrate that transdisciplinary work really shows the path to innovation.”