Jamming to Knitting, Music to Machines: Bringing interdisciplinary research to the manufacturing ecosystem


Andreas Eggenberger

 Andreas Eggenberger

By Irmandy Wicaksono

The KnittedKeyboard that I presented at the ETH Rethinking Creativity Pavilion in the World Economic Forum 2020 has undergone multiple iterations in design and development and shaped my research directions. Here's my take on the future of textiles, as well as the connection between research and manufacturing.

From ETH Zurich to the MIT Media Lab

My passion for merging electronics with textiles and the human body started when I was doing summer work as an undergraduate at Studio XO, a fashion technology laboratory in London. I took part in the development of Lady Gaga’s Anemone and Cipher mechatronic dress for her appearance in the iTunes Festival and artRAVE campaign in 2013. Working together in a creative environment, along with these visionary fashion designers, scientists, and engineers, inspired and excited me toward prototyping the future. I then pursued my Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at ETH Zurich. I spent most of my time there in the Wearable Computing Lab, working on the fabrication, system integration, and the application of novel electronic devices for biomedical monitoring and ubiquitous computing.

In my last semester at ETH Zurich, I was determined to write my MS thesis abroad. The MIT Media Lab was one of the places on my list. The collaborative spirit of its people and their diverse backgrounds, the innovative culture, and avant-garde approach to research have always intrigued me. I reached out to Professor Joe Paradiso, who also happens to be an ETH Zurich Alum as a thesis exchange advisor. His expertise in sensor networks and interactive media matched my interests. After a couple of email exchanges and with the support of ETH Zurich and the Zeno Karl Schindler Foundation, Professor Joe and the MIT Media Lab accepted me to conduct my thesis work there. Who would have guessed? One thing led to another, and I am now a research assistant and PhD student in the Responsive Environments group under Paradiso’s supervision.

The FabricKeyboard

I vividly remember my first email exchange with Professor Joe. We brainstormed several projects for my thesis, but my background in intelligent textiles particularly reminded him of a Scarf Keyboard proposal that he wrote back in early 2000, but never pursued. This project came about following a discussion with his, now late, colleague and friend, Lyle Mays, a world-renowned composer and jazz pianist in the Pat Metheny Group. The idea was to make a fabric-based electronic piano that musicians could roll up and pack in their suitcase—like a scarf or piece of clothing for composing music on the road. This proposal sparked my curiosity since I have always wanted to design my own electronic musical controllers.


Irmandy Wicaksono

Fabrication technologies and novel materials have advanced much further since that time and there is so much more we can do now. Several weeks later, I came up with a design for a multi-modal, expressive stretchable musical keyboard that I call the FabricKeyboard. In the end, I developed a textile-based musical controller that is not only responsive to discrete touch, but also to continuous proximity, pressure, stretch, slides, and electric fields.

My adventure around the factory floors

During my time at the Media Lab, I have been fortunate to be able to engage  in research-manufacturing sessions in Shenzhen, China. These sessions originated with the increasing ability and accessibility to deploy our projects into the real world. As a "Silicon Valley'' of hardware and manufacturing, Shenzhen has one of the world’s highest concentrations of factories across many industries. This unique ecosystem gave us access to diverse knowledge, tools, and raw materials. Usually, in the lab, we can only develop a small version or number of our prototypes, and even if we want to scale or manufacture them, it is not as straightforward because of the limitation of the machines or services. My previous FabricKeyboard project, for example, required me to outsource various materials, hand and machine-sew multiple parts together, design and hand-assemble my circuits, and integrate both soft and hardware systems manually. Scaling projects usually resulted in high costs and long lead-times. Getting to know and collaborating directly with Shenzhen factories opens up possibilities to improve and manufacture prototypes. With my research interests, I ended up exploring and fusing two manufacturing processes of flexible electronics and knitted fabrics. I also worked heavily in a printed circuit board and a digital knitting factory.


Mark Kim

It was very inspiring to learn and gain insights from the experts in these factories. Getting a chance to understand the fundamentals behind digital knitting allowed me to program and customize any type of fabric pattern and clothing in my projects. They were also generally open to my challenges, even when it meant manufacturing outside of their comfort zones. I feel that such experts have been too accustomed to doing things in a particular way, so discovering and trying out new techniques often triggers enthusiasm. It required many discussions and trial and error, but in the end, we managed to introduce new, unusual materials and methods into some of the fabrication steps. I realized how productive it is to work together in this kind of fast-paced environment. I feel that labs and factories should be more intertwined and innovate together, since rapid and large-scale production can push forward a well-established prototype for research deployment, as well as open up our eyes to what is and what could be feasible in terms of implementation and final products.

Digital knitting of electronic textiles

Every once in a while, I receive emails from all kinds of people asking me where they can find or buy the FabricKeyboard. At first, it made me think, if only they knew how long it takes to realize just one prototype. However, the more I think about it, especially now that I have these manufacturing experiences, I am determined to undertake the challenge and further develop the FabricKeyboard.

Current industrial knitting machines are optimized for mass-manufacturing garments and technical fabrics. Advances in digital fabrication and computer-aided design have transformed the concept of 3D knitting with computerized knitting machines. These machines enable users to personalize and develop their own textile patterns and structures through a specialized visual programming environment and various types of yarn. Using this technology, I combined functional fibers with non-functional yarns to realize KnittedKeyboard with its physical properties and responsive sensing and display capabilities. By merging smart textile materials and design with digital manufacturing technologies, the KnittedKeyboard demonstrates a seamless, robust, and rapid fabrication method of textile-based interactive surfaces. Now, rather than manually sewing it myself and taking several weeks, with these machines, it only takes me an hour or two to knit a keyboard and my textile projects.

A week in Davos

Exhibiting the KnittedKeyboard at ETH Zurich’s RETHINKING Creativity pavilion in Davos, during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2020 was an invaluable experience. The piano-pattern textile aesthetics attracted people to play with it and learn how it works. It was also a good starting point to introduce people from all kinds of backgrounds, from industry and academia to the governmental officials about my research and the world of electronic textiles. They were also interested in knowing how intelligent and personalized textiles could benefit the society. Our discussions went from health monitoring and therapeutics, rehabilitation, and sports science to architecture and outer space. The possibilities are endless, as fabrics and clothing are ubiquitous in our daily life.

Under another roof, the World Economic Forum was buzzing with discussions on some of the world's most pressing issues, including sustainability and the fashion industry. Clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000, and has been taking a significant role in carbon emission, water pollution, and landfills. Industry 4.0 and the digital manufacturing revolution will also significantly impact innovation, job markets, and production around the globe in the future. These conversations also allowed me to further consider the ethics and implications of my research. We not only need to think about how our work could drive technology and economy, and benefit our lives, but also to really anticipate and mitigate its possible societal and environmental impact.

Originally posted in ETH Zurich blog.

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