By Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove
With almost 20 years experience and education in the textile industry, Heli Sukki started her journey working in various kinds of functions from knitting, sewing, yarn finishing industries to e-textiles. Whilst at Clothing Plus+ for 15 years, Heli Sukki gained an exceptional understanding of e-textiles where she worked as a Test Engineer, Product Engineer, Project Engineer, Product Manager and Program Manager. Heli also completed her Masters of Science in Engineering in Finland at the Tampere University of Technology specialising in Garment and Textile Technology.
Looking back at your education, how did going to arts school in Aberdeen Scotland lead you to working in smart textiles in Finland?
Well, at that time I had no idea about smart textiles yet, but looking back I believe seeing and experiencing other cultures and how differently product design was seen in Aberdeen, than in my home school at Finland, time there did mould my opinions alot.
Going back to 1996 where you did your Masters in Science and Engineering in Mechanical textile technology, who were your classmates then (male/female split) and did you know then that smart textiles would take off as it has now?
I studied with some of my ex-collegues from Clothing+. We weren’t all in the same class but the faculty wasn’t big with only approximately 100 students in total so everyone knew everyone. Most of us in the Faculty of Textiles were female, only few male. This was the complete opposite of male/female split at Tampere University of Technology, where most of the students were male.
Conductive textiles and fibers were discussed a lot at the faculty at that time, but only few saw that smart textiles was coming. Those who believed in smart textiles, did not believe, that the breakthrough would take as long time as it now has turned out.
How are smart textiles related to wearable technology? Is there a difference?
As a professional, I see smart textiles more as materials with features like changing color, shape-memory etc. and wearable textiles, which are soft and washable and possibly sensors are integrated. Wearable technology to me includes more "hardware" like wrist devices. For end users I believe there is no clear difference.
How do you keep learning about smart textiles because it is constantly changing with new technologies?
Keeping in touch with colleagues from the field (in facebook, linkedin, different specialized groups), following end user blogs, news from different medias, news from different fairs, visiting fairs, visiting conferences, reading related articles and reading magazines. After the restructure at Clothing+ powered by Jabil, I have now been looking for new challenges for a few months and I must say, that getting updated requires much more work without support and views from enthusiastic co-workers.
It appears that Finland has a great ecosystem of designers, companies, universities and people working in smart textiles. Why do you think that is?
We have a GREAT school system and free education available for everybody. We learn foreign languages and mathematics starting from a young age, which is a good base for occupational and professional education later. As a small nation, we need to specialize to cope and everyone is told that we can achieve what we want. As a heritage from the mobile industry, the value of development is highly appreciated and understood.
You were at Clothing Plus for 15 years. What was your role there?
I started as a Master Thesis worker. At the time Clothing+ was more like a research center with very interdisciplinary organization. In 2002 I completed my Master Thesis: Evaluation the performance of conductive fibers in knitted structures and since have had several tasks there, starting from testing Engineer and step-by-step proceeding to more demanding positions like product and program management. In small organizations for example the international material supply was a big part of my tasks. During the last 10 years in Clothing Plus, essential parts of my tasks were daily communication with our factory production team in China, contacting the named key customers and material suppliers globally.
What were your favourite projects while working there?
Of course I must mention the world's first textile heart rate monitoring band that I was heavily involved with. Great projects were also changing the manufacturing technology from sewing more to the laminating style and still getting textile like, soft and washable product as a result.
I enjoyed every project made with our great customers.
What do you think will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I believe the trend is going towards using applications more in wellbeing, healthcare, rehabilitation, occupational health in addition to sports. Ease of use must be added and end users must be provided with data or information that is meaningful and useful just for them.
Is the #WomenInTech initiative important to you and if yes, why?
I’m only just getting to know the #WomenInTech initiative! :) I believe this can give me valuable contacts and ideas for my future. Us women leaning in together means alot for me.
Have you experienced challenges in the industry and if so, how did you overcome those challenges?
I did mention the ease of use and getting out useful and understandable information is a challenge. To reach more users, information must be more than just the monitoring of the heart rate. This is a challenge still.
Washability has been one big challenge. It is quite easy to integrate electronics or sensors, but making it washable and still comfort to wear is a different case. In many cases careful designing solves the issue. Some cases demand seeing totally new end uses for common materials or maybe even material development.
The size of electronics needs still to get smaller and price lower.
One challenge is also getting customers to know and understand the possibilities of the industry.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to women in the wearable tech/smart textiles industry?
Believe in yourself and speak out loud! In smart textiles miracles may not happen overnight, but long-term work will be rewarding.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and smart textiles?
When doing my Masters Thesis Mrs. Elina Ilen was supervisor and my first instructor into smart and wearable textile field. Nowadays she is a Post Doc Researcher at Aalto University.
My ex-colleague Mari Sierimo. Mari and I manager products together for years at C+. She has a strong knowledge of quality and has now moved ahead to biomaterial field.
My ex-colleague Heidi Malmivaara. Heidi has a strong knowledge of design and manufacturing techniques of smart textiles. At the moment she is leading product development at Clothing+ U.S.A.
All three have passion to the work they do and no fear to express their opinions. Strong Ladies!
Now that you are looking for new opportunities, what is next for you?
What is next for me, is still quite open. My goal is to stay at textiles, even better if I can still make those smart!
Linkedin: Heli Suki