How Wearables Will Change Everything

Murad Kurwa, holder of a half-dozen manufacturing patents, sees meaningful opportunities in novel door-opening shirts and payment processing watches.

In his Silicon Valley lab, certain doors swing open for Murad Kurwa (top) — and only Murad Kurwa — before he presses a button or turns a knob.

It’s not movement that the doors detect. It’s the sensors woven into the fabric of his lab coat, signaling to other sensors in the door-hinge controls that Kurwa, head of Flex’s Advanced Engineering Team, is authorized to enter.

It’s a novel technology for the sheer convenience factor alone, but when applied to the vast array of problems that Flex’s customers are trying to solve across sectors, the simple innovation opens the doors to giant advancements in home security, public health, safety, and the manufacturing process itself.

Flex, amazingly, now meets about 75% of the world’s demand for wearables. It manufactures technology for Fitbit and Jawbone, and has partnered with the startup OMsignal to create smart shirts for Ralph Lauren that will feature sensors embedded in the textile fibers that track everything from hydration to breathing to stress.

The wearables industry is widely expected to explode over the next decade, with revenue in the global wearable devices market forecast to reach $37 billion in 2020 from $1 billion last year, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

And it’s not just for geeks. Nike’s Nike+ sensor, which gives runners real-time feedback on their pace, distance, time elapsed, and calories burned, counted more than 18 million users in 2013. Apple and Samsung, meanwhile, both unveiled smart watches last year that monitor activity and heart rate; Apple’s watch doubles as a credit card, allowing instant payment at Apple Pay terminals.

Flex’s Consumer Technologies Group President Mike Dennison says that the company began developing products for their own customers’ wearables years before they were announced, like the flexible circuitry needed to create smart devices that bend. “We didn’t know where it would go but we knew we would use it soon,” he says. The company has automated much of the manufacturing process over the past several years, allowing teams to produce wearables in very short cycles, says the advanced engineering unit’s Kurwa. He is the man at Flex behind a half-dozen patents that revolutionize manufacturing. His Universal Box Build system (UBB), for example, assembles products such as servers, switches and storage systems as it carries on a constant conversation with product design teams — with video and streaming data that tracks the accurate placement of components in real time. Teams can evolve designs right on the line and run fewer, shorter cycles. It changes the competitive landscape for manufacturers, is economical, and can be re-used for different products. Most importantly, it can be used to predict performance of a product, like a wearable fitness device, based on its intended use. This intelligent data platform and process was never before possible.

UBB was key in developing products with Flex customer Cisco, widely known as a leader in the Internet of Things (IoT). It helped improve products as they were being manufactured. “It resonated with Cisco, because they were on the same journey that we were on.” Working with Flex was an aha moment for Cisco, Kurwa says, “the moment of truth for both companies.”

The breakthroughs in manufacturing, led by Kurwa, have inspired a company-wide approach to repurposing all kinds of technologies across industries. Shirts originally conceived for athletes with sensors like those Flex makes, for example, find new purposes for heart surgery patients. In a recent story in the website publication Quartz, James Winger, a sports medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center, suggested that smart shirts could eliminate the need for recovering patients to hook up to EKG machines during rehabilitation.

“Just think if you could measure your blood pressure, or measure your insulin levels, or be able to notify an emergency contact if something is not working correctly in your body,” Dennison says. “Especially as we have an aging population that wants to stay at home, they need to be connected with devices that ensure they can live a healthy, safe life without living in and old folks’ home.”

Also moving closer to reality are wearables controlled by brainpower, Dennison says, particularly useful “if you’re paralyzed and need to transcribe a note, to send an email, to make something move or change.”

Intelligence, in other words, means more than connecting devices or capturing data. It involves intuitive design for multiple new users in multiple industries. “I think about my mother, who has an ability to know that 3,000 steps are better than 1,000 steps,” says Jeannine Sargent, Flex’s president of Innovation and New Ventures. “Her care provider can also understand and give her direction.”

Novel as it seems on the surface, smart doors technology such as that used in Kurwa’s lab is part of a deeper technology play, too. It is likely to become an integral part of consumers’ increasingly connected homes, an area that Dennison sees growing as fast, if not faster, than the wearables market. The tech could also deliver seismic shifts in the way we think about everything from corporate and national security to safety on a factory floor to containing a virulent outbreak of Ebola at pop-up isolation units or clinics in West Africa.

“I think that it’s still early days for wearables,” says Dennison. While smart clothing can’t yet “react” to what it senses, tightening or loosening depending on your activity level, for example, or activating to shield the wearer from harm, wearables hitting the market in the coming year are “going to give you a lot of data that you can then use to modify what you’re doing to be more useful in the future.”

Thanks to his patented technology, Kurwa’s team is already set up to manufacture the devices he sees coming around the corner. What has long seemed like futuristic fiction, he says, is “becoming reality very soon.”

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INTELLIGENCE explores the concept of co-innovation and the “Intelligence of Things,” that Flex sees as the building blocks of the post-Information Age era. More at flex.com

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