Manufacturing to scale is arguably the most significant challenge facing the smart materials and wearable technology industries—and it’s not just desirable, but essential for growth and survival. Without full commercialization, the drive for new developments and research are in jeopardy. There is no shortage of interest and enthusiasm amongst stakeholders, which begs the question of why, after more than thirty years of commercialization are we not further advanced in this? The question is worth exploring, as there are strategies to consider that may leveraged to achieve a greater level of market penetration.
From startup to established
There is a long list of wearable technology start-ups, but a far shorter list of those that have grown beyond the initial compelling product offering. One that has is Hexoskin, so I put the question to CEO Pierre-Alexandre Fournier following his presentation at the International Conference on Intelligent Textiles and Mass Customization-ITMC 2022, hosted by CTT Group and held in Montreal in September.
Fournier was keen to stress the importance of addressing people’s needs rather than being led by technology. This is far from easy, particularly in the health and medical sectors. The company’s evolution demonstrates a measured approach to innovation that does not attempt to achieve everything in the first few years. From 2012–2015 its focus was on exercise, academic research and defense. This moved to clinical and pharmaceutical trials from 2016–2021. The next period (2022–2024) looks to medical applications—remote patient monitoring, to begin, and beyond 2024 a move towards automated diagnostics, chronic disease management, remote care and security.
The market size has grown from establishing credibility with around 10,000 unit sales in the first period, to 100,000-1million in the second (current) period. The list of solutions the company is focused in includes a mixture of rare and more widely known conditions such as epilepsy, heart failure and pain management. For Hexoskin, it is a business model for achieving both scale and innovation.
In their paper titled Antecedents for Older Adults’ Intention to Use Smart Health Wearable Devices-Technology Anxiety as a Moderator, published by researchers at the National Open University, National Changhua University of Education and National Quemoy University in Taiwan, the researchers address the issue of the “technologically anxious” amongst this demographic as a barrier to adoption. Technology readiness coupled with ease of use and perceived benefit were found to be the key factors in adopting wearable technologies.
Achieving comfort in wearable technology is a consistent goal for researchers and manufacturers across all market sectors. More wearability in garments ensure that they are being worn as intended and it is a particular issue where this is over long periods of time. Fitness and workwear have one set of demands based on activity levels, movement and body temperature, and while seniors share some of these requirements the parameters are very different.
In her paper titled Patternmaking for attractive clothing for mass customization, given at the ITMC2022 conference, associate professor Kim KyoungOk of Shinshu University draws a link between comfort and beauty, examining their impact on the purchase decision for wearables. Her study focuses on the bra, highlighting the need to consider the changing body shape for senior women. The market is very different compared with the sports fitness needs, having to take account of a sedentary rather than active lifestyle. Movement for fitness is taken to refer to physical exercise once the garment is on, while for a senior the movement needs are more associated with the dexterity needed to put on and take off the smart bra.
In a separate but related study on jacket design involving KyoungOk and other researchers, results revealed that in terms of the “purchase intention,” this is shown to be a small subset of “wearing comfort” preference indications, which, in turn, appears as a very small subset of those garments indicated as fulfilling the requirement for “fit and beauty.” Fit, comfort and beauty are shown to be interconnected and the consumer’s decision-making process nuanced.
The impact of demographics
HealthTech magazine has identified three key care technology trends: the adoption of a hospital-at-home model; tech-concierge roles to assist seniors; wearables as a means of handing over more control of their own health care to seniors.
One of the issues with smart materials and wearables in the past has been that users (particularly early adopters) are quick to move on to the next new thing, with brand loyalty not necessarily following to the next purchase. With the older demographic, the driver is not the thrill of the new, but is motivated by the desire for a better quality of independent living that will hopefully keep them in their own homes and out of a care facility.
Research shows that 77 percent of adults over the age of fifty want to remain in their own homes long-term. That is a very different impetus. As to the potential for market growth, studies from the Urban Institute estimate that the number of households headed by people age 65 and older will grow from 34 million to 48 million over the next two decades.
Samsung has already identified a market direction here: “With wearables, particularly with the aging population, it’s a different way of engaging them than mobile devices, because we can collect information like body composition, heart rate to detect arrhythmia and sleep score—and it’s only going to get better,” says Hon Pak, M.D., chief medical officer at Samsung Electronics in an interview in Fierce Healthcare this year. He adds, “We’re in the home with mobile devices, TVs and appliances, and we see the collision of healthcare happening in the home.”
The use of the term “collision” suggests that we may be looking in the wrong place to define scale, and it may be more productive to view each element as both independent and connected at the same time. Might this be the way to achieve scale in manufacturing?
Dr. Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant on smart and advanced textiles at O’Mahony Consultancy. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and has an academic position at the Royal College of Art, London.