John Johnston, NPI Director, Chemigraphic
Wearable tech has come of age.
Most of the heavy-lifting has already been done, which is why so many start-ups are keen to use their focus and agility to bring new wearable products to market.
Multiple technology and component solutions are already in place, so there’s no need for a huge R&D budget or large resource team.
Start-up OEMs can now focus on innovation. They can develop a prototype and then rely on the skills, knowledge and network of an EMS partner to overcome the manufacturing challenges posed by wearable devices.
There are three key challenges:
- What works for small-scale design validation and prototyping may not translate smoothly to a volume ready manufacturing process.
- There is a risk of enduring a lifetime of sub-optimal manufacturing efficiency if you’re not aware of all the options available for materials, components and build. These need to be implemented at the beginning for the best results.
- Unnecessary costs and delays can be incurred if you lack access to a reliable network of specialist suppliers in an effective supply chain.
The wearables market
Wearables burst on the scene with the fitness tracker boom in recent years but such simple tech has quickly run its course, to be replaced by more sophisticated alternatives.
As the market has developed it has matured: more complex devices such as smartwatches now dominate and specialist devices aimed at the military and industrial market are proliferating. Other key sectors for this technology are medical, where applications include condition monitoring systems such as heart rate trackers and industrial, in which human-machine interfaces such as augmented reality vision systems are used.
- The global market is now worth £10.2m.
- It’s growing at a healthy 6% each year.
- China is far and away the largest market, followed by USA and India.
Sensors and switches
‘From an electromechanical perspective, a wristwatch and a smartwatch are polar opposites and require a different design. Contact and operability are of paramount importance for smartwatches: they must provide a satisfying, tactile experience, a high life-cycle and a consistency of operation.’ Eric Ewing, Senior Product Manager at Panasonic
The more ‘smart’ functions you incorporate into your device, the more important your position and choice of switches and sensors becomes.
For sensors, they must be placed incredibly accurately – and tested extensively – to ensure they are sensitive enough to relay accurate data that can be transferred to other devices.
For switches on devices worn on the head, such as listening devices and smart glasses, a light actuation force is required. However, for easily accessible wearables that are within the user’s direct field of vision, a high actuation force is needed to avoid operating errors from knocks and bumps.
Protection and flexibility
Tactile switches for wearables also need to be able to work properly in different environments over many years. Worn close to the skin the salt contained in sweat is a major threat to unprotected components, but protection is also required against water, damp, moisture and dust penetration.
The components must be fitted to withstand the inevitable knocks and bumps of daily life – but they must also be encased in flexible materials that stretch and adapt.
Wearables demand a manufacturing partner who can creatively respond to restrictions on how components can be used and where they can be placed. To avoid costly changes late in the manufacturing process, early engagement is critical.
Beyond electronics themselves, successful material selection for wearables requires experience in working with products where hygiene, sterilisation, durability, adjustability, waterproofing and stain resistance are all factors in play.
Batteries, charging and connectivity
Battery life is one of the biggest challenges for wearable tech. Space is limited, so the more efficient the electronics the better. This also means that the user will be less likely to suffer discomfort through heat.
Lithium ion is the preferred battery option for longer life from a smaller space. This hazardous material can cause issues for transport, shipping, handling and storage. And at least two big names – Samsung and FitBit – can attest that the risk to users should not be taken lightly either.
Wearable devices tend to use Bluetooth for connectivity rather than Wi-Fi. Tests have shown that Bluetooth technology can use 3% of the energy required by Wi-Fi.
Wear it’s at
Wearable tech is a growing market. Beyond the consumer market, sectors such as medical, military and industrial are increasingly relying on IoT-enabled wearables.
Potentially, manufacturing and supply chain considerations still pose significant challenges to OEMs. These are challenges that the best EMS providers have been meeting for a long time.
Engage early and you’ll be wearing a smile.