10 Trends Impacting Wearable Device Development

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving demand for wearable devices across multiple industries. As an example, in the healthcare industry, more patients struggle to access traditional face-to-face medical care and wearable healthcare devices are bridging the gap between patients, families, and medical professionals.

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To meet wearable device demand, companies are rushing to develop new wearable devices and modify existing device designs. Product design companies like Design 1st are on the receiving end, helping clients scale their capabilities and navigate the new challenges of bringing wearable devices to market.

During a recent wearables webinar with Electronic Products & Technology Magazine, Design 1st CEO Kevin Bailey, weighed in on what’s changing in wearable development. The 10 key trends that stand out include:


1) Covid-19 Continues to impact Development Timeline: 

The global pandemic continues to add friction to wearable product development because developing, prototyping, and testing wearable products with remote teams takes more time and careful coordination. When you have a multi-disciplined team working in one building troubleshooting issues, learning together from prototypes, and receiving parts, the entire process goes faster.

Prior to the pandemic, Design 1st's electronic, software, design and manufacturing teams worked together and in-person. This allowed for seamless collaboration to work debugging boards, test prototypes across other disciplines, and get feedback that allowed the team to make adjustments fast. With the majority of the team working together successfully remotely, teams adjusted to new workflows that while smooth, did add a layer of delay to the hands-on interactive part of the product development timelines.

Prototype testing across all disciplines is critical to ensure a quality product is ready for mass production. As our team begins to transition back to the office, we see the opportunity to streamline with new collaboration tools and part time work from home efficiencies which actually speeds up the development processes for all our clients.


2) Wearables Moving Away from Touch Interfaces:

User interaction is one of the top trends in wearable device technology. We are seeing a shift away from touch-based user interfaces on wearables and a move towards more motion, tactile, gesture, and voice activation.

Several factors are driving the UI shift with wearable technology, demand for smaller, compact devices and easy connectivity with fast processing in smartphones and cloud and richer UI interfaces on display devices enabling a more interaction-rich seamless user experience.

The virtual 2021 Consumer Electronics Show brought this trend into the spotlight, showcasing several healthcare wearables that rely on touchless interfaces including:

  • HealthyU, a remote patient monitoring device
  • FallCall, a fall detection system for the elderly
  • BioIntelliSense, a FDA Class 2 vital sign monitoring system

3) Miniaturization of Wearable Devices is Here to Stay:

Wearable devices are getting smaller because of innovations in biosensors, key components, and rigid-flex printed-circuit-boards (PCBs) that allow for more parts to be included in a small space. The result is smaller rigid circuit boards with more high-speed connection options enabling smaller product and ergonomic shapes in the concept design phase. This has led to thinner form factors, better biosensor fit to body accuracy, reliability robustness and longer device lifespans.

Gone are the days where body-worn devices were thick, lumpy, and required large surface area contact to body. New wearable healthcare devices are shrinking, becoming lighter and more powerful. This trend means closer integration of design, electronics, and manufacturing teams early in the development process. It is critical to identify costs, power to recharge time, and component availability to ensure transition to volume production runs go smoothly.

Design 1st, VP of Embedded Software, Yih-Shyang Tsai sees several changes:

“Wearable design now often consists of integrating complex sensors and subsystems from a variety of vendors rather than having to design those parts from scratch. Some very complex functions are now available in the form factor of an integrated circuit (SOC) where in the past it would have been a considerable development effort to design any one of those components.”


4) More focus on Device Security and Data Privacy

As wearable healthcare devices become more accepted by consumers and medical professionals, concerns over data privacy and device security is at the forefront.
Companies developing new wearable devices need to address these concerns head-on with a robust strategy that persuades users, meets regulatory requirements and secures data over wireless networks.

There are four areas that wearable security companies developing new products must be aware of: device, cloud, application, and network. Each of these areas needs to be carefully addressed to develop wearables that protect against ongoing security threats and keep user data secure and safe.

Design 1st VP Hardware, Donovan Wallace, sees data security as critical to all wearable products:

“Our clients certainly value the physical design and ergonomic aspects of their wearable products. However, the key capability common to this product category is the data collection by the product and the ability to store and analyze that data, either real time or historically, on a smart device or cloud platform. Also, ensuring data security, specifically privacy is just as important as the ensuring the product’s physical integrity and resilience to environmental risk factors.”


5) Supply Chain Relationships Are Critical

We are in the midst of an unprecedented global supply chain shortage on key electronic components for wearables. This shortage makes strong relationships with your supply chain partners critical to keep wearable product development running smooth.

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Design 1st team in China meeting with supply chain partners

At Design 1st, we have deployed three strategies to counter supply chain shortages:

  1. Integrating supplier input selecting key components early in the design phase of new projects to understand the availability of key components for prototyping and volume production. This provides a healthy outlook to understand issues before they arise and make alternative components choices if a shortage or End of Life (EOL) is possible.
  2. Focus on avoiding customized off-the-shelf (OTS) components where possible to simplify the many design pathways and bring products to market faster when required.
  3. Continue to nurture and expand our manufacturing contacts network to understand where the global supply chain of critical components is headed. Being in constant communication with key suppliers, manufacturers and spot buy networks enables the design team to find alternatives not readily available through traditional online searches of major distributor databases

6) Uptick in Re-Design for Difficult to Source Parts

Making design modifications to products in development that eliminate difficult-to-source parts is becoming a new trend in 2021. We are seeing new and current clients hitting roadblocks in their product development because of part shortage surprises. As a work-around, we are re-designing hardware and firmware mid-project to substitute alternative components that fit the original component as best as possible.

Steve Harrington, Senior Electronics Lead at Design 1st sees this first hand:
“Right now, this is consuming a significant amount of design time as there are not generally drop-in replacements for components that show up with long lead times. Entire sections of the design have to be essentially re-done from scratch to change the architecture to accommodate different parts that are available.”

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Image: Amazon Echo product teardown for client project

A part has to be available in the short term for the prototype build but also readily available in quantity in the long term to start the production up. Hopefully, the supply shortages will be short-lived but to mitigate any future issues, as a standard practice, it is important to continually look at lifecycle and availability of components in the initial concept design phase – including alternates or drop-in replacements for key components when available. This allows for more flexibility if supply issues continue to surface.


7) Advancements in Wearable Manufacturing

The technology used to manufacture wearable devices is becoming more automated and robotized which allows for more complex geometries internally, better quality components, and miniaturization of device assembly. This results in smaller wearables that can be produced faster with more predictable automated manufacturing processes including softgoods integrated with hardgoods and electronics.

The challenge will be to keep up-to-speed with wearable manufacturing techniques to design in the new processes early in the development process, being mindful that low volume and high-volume production need different approaches.

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Image: Robotic Adhesive Manufacturing Process

VP of Product Engineering at Design 1st, Matthew Bailey, sees three interesting advancements influencing the future of wearable manufacturing:

I. Automated and laser soldering processes for components that need very specific soldering points, times and temperatures.
II. Integration of complex seal techniques in small applications from dual injection / double shot processes to robotically applied form-in-place gaskets for ultra-fine mechanical gaskets that make assembly faster and meet the cosmetic and form requirements that standard methods like O-rings can’t
II. Mitigation of electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection with tiny products that have to deal with minimum 8Kv air discharge typical of wearables and up to 30Kv contact according to IEC 61000-4-2.


8) Increased Awareness of Wearable Regulatory Device Certification:

The trend towards wearable healthcare devices that process body signals, often worn on the skin or placed in the ear, make understanding medical regulatory certifications critical to getting them to market fast.

Early in the product’s development, it is important to navigate the fine line between general wellness wearables, like smart watches vs. regulated medical devices, like wearable insulin monitors. Adding regulatory certifications to a device will add many months of additional time, so preparing early and running documentation in parallel with design team is important.

Design 1st, VP Regulatory, Dave Mills, helps clients move towards regulatory certification and makes sure the development team follows a tight process:
“All design steps, from initial concepts to detailed engineering and prototype are made with regulatory certifications in mind. This includes part selections like batteries, wireless radios, and materials and documentation of design decision tracking, source control and testing. Having a fully documented development process done in parallel with the design helps accelerate certification for our clients”.


9) Advancements in Battery Life

One of the biggest advancements in wearable device technology is battery use life before re-charge. A combination of new battery advancements, miniaturization of devices, and optimized embedded software will result in wearable devices that keep users going and connected longer.

Design 1st, VP of Manufacturing, Dave Ingram sees several trends in wearable battery life:
“The components making impact on wearable batteries today include: printed batteries for power sources; energy harvesting from human body; use of low energy UI interfaces including haptic sensing. Solid state batteries are also interesting and we are waiting to hear more on these now as they approach production and higher capacities in the 100+mAh capacity range.”


10) Emergence of New Wearable Categories:

The novelty of wearable devices is fading, but new wearables are solving issues and making remote healthcare easier for people across the world. Two Design 1st clients are on the frontline developing innovative wearable devices to solve health challenges include:

 

Additional wearable health care device categories seeing innovation are:

  • Insulin Patches
  • Contact Lenses
  • Air Purifying Masks
  • Blood Pressure Monitoring
  • Biosensor Patches
  • Hearing Aids
  • Remote Patient Monitoring

Looking into the future, Design 1st VP of Marketing, Joan Highet sees several trends developing:

“We used to take a visit to our doctor to get an ECG or blood pressure check, now we wear devices to measure our vital signs on a real time basis collecting useful data over days, weeks and years of our lives. It will be interesting to see if there will be an impact on health insurance and life insurance as we have much more personal bio data available for analysis. Equally important is the personal awareness as we become more interactive with the good things happening to our body with every breath we take.”


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