This week, we are expanding our Startup Spotlight series to delve deeper into trends impacting the fashtech space. In these exclusive interviews, these thought leaders share their insights on trends, challenges, and opportunities.
This week’s deep dive is wearable technology and manufacturing.
Wearable technology is the future. You may question it, or disagree, but the nature of our interactions with technology is quickly moving us towards a relationship that is much more personal and form conscious than smartphones, tablets, and goggles.
To see how far we’ve gone, and where we need to go, we spoke with leading wearable tech practitioner and advocate Erich Zainzinger. Erich is the founder of the interactive fashion consultancy firm Elextiles where he lends his expertise in interactive fashion, e-textiles, and wearable electronics to brands around the world. Erich is also an global thought leader through his influential blog: talk2myshirt.com.
This is a two-part series. In part I, we talk to Erich about the manufacturing process, it’s challenges, and opportunities. In part II, we talk about Erich’s business, clients, and wearable and the fashion industry.
1. Erich, can you briefly talk about how you got into wearable technology and the focus of your company Elextile?
My first contact with Wearable Tech was in early 2002 while working on special projects at Philips Electronics. During the Philips/Nike alliance we developed sports related products that offered access and insight into textile processes and the apparel business model. At the same time, Philips had several wearable electronics initiatives at the research level, as well as a design team dedicated to wearable electronic exploration.
I joined Philips Research to create illuminated textiles called Lumalive, an experiment to industrialize experimental technology fresh out of the research Lab into product application and manufacturing. 2 years later, Lumalive light emitting textiles launched as an eye-catching element for promotion agencies.
Armed with over 7 years of dedicated wearable tech research, business development, and industrialization, I decided to branch out on my own. In early 2009, I started my own consulting company Elextile, working with companies and individuals interested in exploring and adopting wearable technology.
2. In your eyes, what innovation or trend has led to the most significant impact on wearable technology in the last 5 years?
At this point in time, it might be too early to talk about the impact of wearable tech during the last 5 years. Wearable tech itself is at an early stage, at least from a product availability point of view. The most visual impact in the past year has come from active, dynamic light accents worn on stage by performers and artists. This visible placement of wearable tech, with the influence of artists, have the potential to turn active light elements into a trend, assuming textile light technology becomes available to fashion and apparel brands soon. This is the challenge for individuals or companies interested in integrating wearable tech to their business. Currently, textile light components are difficult to find, not readily available at a competitive price, or are not durable for the stage.
Recently, however, heated clothing has become an interesting area with clear benefits for the consumer and solid business opportunity for brands and wearable tech solution providers.
If we look more broadly, smart phones have the ability to start a trend of interactivity between clothing and mobile technology. Smart phones offer connectivity possibilities and are relatively easy to connect to technology-enhanced clothing through mobile apps and other tools. For example, sensory functionality integrated into clothing can send data to a smart phone for data visualization and social sharing.
3. You’ve been working on manufacturing wearable technologies for several years. What is the current state of wearable tech manufacturing and what are the challenges?
About two thirds of my time and resources go into the industrialization and manufacturing of wearable tech – the art of combining textile processes with basic technology/electronic processes. In theory, this might sound relatively simple, but, in reality, it is a very challenging task. Partly because of incompatible factory setups, textile and electronic materials are handled, stored, and processed differently than “regular” apparel materials. Therefore, the infrastructure is optimized for either one or the other. In a perfect world, factories would be built with both processes in mind, making industrialization of wearable tech much smoother. On the other hand, the processes to integrate simple elements (such as electrically conductive lines into woven or knitted structures) are not yet well-developed. So one has to work out production solutions or modify existing machinery to start volume production. With volume production, I do not necessarily mean thousands or millions of units, but smaller volumes of a few hundred units that require a different set of production and assembly skills than producing just a few units for demonstration purposes.
There are some companies working hard on the industrialization of wearable tech and integration into clothing, but it will take time until a “best practice”, or some type of industry standard that others can build upon, emerges. Currently, wearable tech production requires pioneer and explorer-type individuals and companies to take on the job of finding the most fitting processes and practices for wearable tech industrialization. Elextile is one of these pioneers.
4. One challenge we discussed was the slow commercialization of wearable tech. How do you envision “speeding up” the process? What needs to happen to push commercialization forward?
This is a very difficult question and usually ignites heated debate between members of both apparel and technology industries. I am not claiming to have the ultimate answer, but having spent many years with wearable technology and working in almost every position, I might be able to offer a higher level view.
The slow adoption of wearable tech for the consumer market is mainly based on the current situation that only a few wearable tech materials or components are ready ‘off the shelf’ for use by apparel brands. Whenever a brand expresses interest in integrating one of the great features demonstrated by a wearable tech designer, the brand soon realizes there is almost no information on the materials available or companies experienced in integrating technology into textiles and clothing. This situation forces brands to either take high business and consumer satisfaction risks to develop “on-the-fly” while producing consumer apparel, or to step back and wait until (finally) wearable tech components, materials, and manufacturer surface that can proof the integration of a certain wearable tech functionality, i.e., it is well-designed, tested, fit for volume production, and, most importantly, reasonable cost.
Costs of a component or material are a critical factor in any kind of product, but it is especially important in the apparel industry where cost calculation is very different from, say, the electronics industry. But to summarize, wearable tech components and materials need to be fit (in terms of cost, robustness, reliability, and manufacturability) to be used in commercial products. As long as this “fitness” can not be achieved, wearable tech will only be able to serve iconic, top-of-the-line products that some brands tend to launch on occasion.
5. How about the impact of the DIY and open source movements on wearable tech. What are the differences of this approach and the approach adopted by those focused on commercialization?
The DIY and Maker community has made huge progress in light of wearable tech over the past years, creating not only astonishing designs using wearable tech but creating a broader awareness among the general public. DIY and open source are very fertile grounds for innovation and creativity, which contributes to huge interest but also high expectations of what wearable tech could achieve.
Speaking of, high expectations on wearable tech, as demonstrated by prototypes, make people (especially business types) think that most wearable tech demonstrations are ready to be commercialized. That is, somewhere in the world someone knows how to manufacture this particular feature/material/system in a cost responsible way. But most of the time, this is not the case. Technologies and materials used by the DIY community are not ‘limited’ by robustness, cost and complexity considerations. This creates a lot of confusion and frustration in the business community who are more apt that not to shy away from the commercialization of otherwise promising – but still in the experimental stage – technologies. Businesses, like consumers, do not like to have uncertainty in their products.
So the DIY and open source community should keep on creating and doing stuff, and put no limits on its creativity. What is needed is more individuals and companies to pick up some of these ideas and work out the processes necessary to produce consistently reliable solutions at a reasonable price point.
Stay tuned for Part II.
Featured Image courtesy of Enlightened Designs