She has been called an haute couture designer and a digital knitter. But the title that Geneviève Dion prefers most is “design scientist.”
Dion had a stellar career as a designer of bespoke clothing and accessories even before she arrived at Drexel in 2007 to direct the fashion design program at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Her clients included rock stars such as Tina Turner and Elvis Costello, and her designs appeared in elite venues such as Barneys New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
At Drexel, Dion's fascination with manipulating fabric evolved from high design to high technology. She recognized that the future of fibers and textiles lay in their ability to store and transmit energy and information. Scientists were talking about “wearable electronics” with potential applications in health, energy, communications and national defense. But the field was in its infancy.
Dion, who also has a master's degree in industrial design, quickly grasped that she would need to combine her mastery of textiles and product design with expertise in biotechnology, medicine, material sciences, electronics, and computer science. And she saw Drexel as the ideal place to build those collaborations and give them a home.
Dion's vision of a transdisciplinary hub for functional fabrics research at Drexel took shape in 2012, when a leading textile-related manufacturer offered philanthropic seed money. Combining this donor-fueled venture capital with startup space inside Drexel's ExCITe Center, Dion launched what is now the Center for Functional Fabrics (CFF).
Knitting as a rapid prototyping technology for industry
The fabric samples arrayed around the lab might look like knitted socks, gloves, dresses and belts, but in fact, they are prototypes for biomedical textiles, soft-robotics and garment devices.
"I like to think of computerized knitting as a form of 3-D printing," Dion explains. "We can take one yarn and row by row, layer by layer, garments emerge in three dimensions." The knitting done at CFF is ideal for producing rapid prototypes, and the same equipment can quickly scale up designs for mass production.
"Then you start mixing in new materials, such as metal yarn for conductivity, and you end up with questions such as, 'What if the fabric itself was the medical device – comfortable, fashionable and constantly sending a stream of critical information to sensors that automatically alert the wearer, or a remote health care worker, at the first sign of a problem?'"
Questions such as that led her to find partners in electrical and computer engineering and medicine. One such team has already patented wearable devices designed to measure contractions in pregnant women and respiration in premature infants. The "Bellyband" for pregnant women and infants began clinical trials in 2018 to determine its effectiveness in warning of a potential miscarriage in women or breathing difficulties in newborns.
In 2016, The U.S. Department of Defense established Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a $75 million institute established to rejuvenate American textile manufacturing and bring sophisticated new products to market. Drexel is a key stakeholder of AFFOA, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas Jefferson University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, and the University of Central Florida, which all contribute to research powerful enough to spur market innovation.
More recently, CFF collaborated with AFFOA to establish the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center (PA FDC), also managed by Dion. The PA FDC focuses on helping companies and innovators take their advanced textile concepts from prototype to product, while also preparing the regional workforce for high-quality jobs in this growing market sector.
Early in the spring of 2019, the entire functional fabric enterprise relocated to a new 10,000-square-foot home in Schuylkill Yards. This space includes everything needed for cutting-edge textile research, development and prototyping. It also facilitates collaboration and welcomes visiting researchers. As an anchor tenant in the innovation district taking shape between Amtrak's 30th Street Station and Drexel's campus, Dion's visionary lab will be easily accessible to industry, academia and government.
"We are designing not just the materials of the future, but the tools of the future," Dion emphasizes. "We're pushing the boundaries of how people work together. And our students are the incredible thinkers of tomorrow. What emerges has almost limitless potential to ignite new industries."
Core collaborators bring wider Drexel expertise to functional fabrics
This list contains only some of the major contributors to current transdisciplinary research.
David Breen, PhD, associate professor of computer science in the College of Computing & Informatics, develops accurate modeling and simulation software for digital knitting. He leads the Geometric Biomedical Computing Group, which develops algorithms and software that solve geometry-related computing problems for a variety of biomedical applications.
Kapil Dandekar, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, is also the director of the Drexel Wireless Systems Laboratory. His expertise in wireless, ultrasonic and optical communications as well as reconfigurable antennas allows him to harness their power in functional fabrics.
Yury Gogotsi, PhD, is the Distinguished University and Charles T. and Ruth M. Bach Professor of Materials Science & Engineering in the College of Engineering. As director of Drexel's Nanomaterials Group, Gogotsi concentrates on the integration of nanomaterials into functional fabrics for energy harvesting and storage, among other specialties. Gogotsi and Dion also co-advise PhD candidates.
“Our students are the incredible thinkers of tomorrow.”
Kelly Joyce, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Sociology and director of the Science, Technology and Society Program. Joyce studies the social, cultural and political dimensions of medical technology innovation. She deepens Drexel's understanding of societal views on advances in functional fabrics.
Youngmoo Kim, PhD, is a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center. Kim leverages his expertise in human-machine interfaces and robotics for expressive interaction. He also co-advises PhD candidates with Dion.
Owen Montgomery, MD, is a professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Drexel College of Medicine. He contributes expertise on pregnancy, miscarriage and neonatal safety in development of the BellyBand.
Caroline Schauer, PhD, is a professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering and leads the Natural Polymers and Photonics Research Group. Schauer works primarily in the area of natural polymers as a platform for multifunctional materials. She and Professor Dion have designed, developed and fabricated an electrospinning machine for creating nanoyarns with specific properties. She also co-advises graduate students with Dion.
Ali Shokoufandeh, PhD, is a professor and senior associate dean of research at the College of Computing & Informatics. His expertise in machine learning helps to improve computing for new textile-based systems.