As electronic manufacturing services (EMS) companies morph into supply chain companies and electronics seeps into every part of our existence, supply chains are colliding. One of the more obvious current collisions is that of the electronics manufacturing industry and the apparel industry in the field of wearables.
Whether it is the latest crowd-funded project or a volume product like a fitness or activity monitor worn on the wrist, all these products have impacted the way we view manufacturing. And it's not just the traditional apparel industry, the higher end of the fashion industry is also getting involved in technology with companies like Swarovski partnering with technology providers like Misfit to develop solutions for an ever more discerning market. While Fossil, who not only manufacture their own brand but also make watches for various designer brands, have brought a series of smart watches and fitness trackers to the market.
Some products are a complex blend of flexible technical fabrics with sensor and monitoring technology, whilst others are more traditional electronic products but designed into the form factors that make them wearable with the demands on robustness and miniaturization that it brings.
From an assembly point of view, it is interesting to consider what is required in the manufacturing process when conductive materials are printed on or embedded into a garment. The industry is used to processing rigid materials, mainly copper clad laminates in the form of printed circuit boards (PCBs). It is not geared up to assembly on flexible stretchable materials like the fabrics used in the apparel industry. Likewise, it hasn't figured out the placement process and the inspection process. Heat will also provide a challenge if we want to solder in the close proximity of fabrics, especially modern man-made material like those used in sports wear.
And what about the supply chain and the desire for a single point of contact, one person or company with ultimate product knowledge and responsibility? Call it what you will, it is essential that supply chains are integrated and the buyer, brand, or OEM feels someone has control.
Buyers, procurement managers, and supply chain managers all appreciate this. They like certainty and they like to know that when a supply chain is challenged or at risk they call one person and get all the answers they need. If I were a large OEM brand with successfully outsourced supply chains in apparel and electronics (and I can think of a few of these), then when I introduce a product that converges apparel and electronics, I would ask both sets of vendors to bid on the entire project. Whether the electronics industry or the apparel industry steps up to that challenge will define how the future looks in this sector and indeed in both sectors.