The Evolution of StretchSense
After releasing our first silicone stretch sensors in 2012 and our fabric version in 2015, we’re now supplying the wearables industry with custom sensing arrays.
In the last six months, StretchSense has been undergoing a metamorphosis. I haven’t written in a while, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about this evolution: The overhaul we’ve made to our products and the strategy behind the changes in our business.
There have been broad changes to align every segment of our business to better facilitate our mission of enabling our customers to develop game-changing wearable technology. The evolution has been helped along by a significant increase in manufacturing capabilities, but more importantly, by the knowledge of our customers’ product development cycle.
As our technology has matured, so has our understanding of both the needs of product developers and our products, and of the way our business strategy has changed to adapt to this knowledge. Although the playbook on how sensors and electronics are integrated with garments is still being written, I believe StretchSense is on track to create it.
In the past, developers came to us with great ideas for next-generation wearables that would be completely soft and comfortable, that conform to the body and provide information about the body’s movement. The problem lay in creating that — or even figuring out if it could even be done. Getting a working prototype built was very, very difficult. It took a long time, a lot of money, and a lot of pain.
We used to sell development kits, which were boxes of sensors, circuits and peripherals. The kits were designed so developers could learn how to use the technology to gather data from body motion. They would then come back and tell us what worked and what didn’t, and we would create a custom sensing system based on the needs of their prototype. This process took a lot of time, and they would still have to figure out how to integrate the sensors and electronics with their material, how to route the cabling, and then how to deal with other rigid connectors and components. Moving from the initial discovery stage of buying a kit to producing a working prototype could take up to a year. It was very slow and very expensive.
We did a lot of work that only helped customers showcase ideas to their upper management and their companies. Someone would buy some sensors and pay for some of our services, and we’d create a prototype for them; then they would try to sell it internally. The problem with that was the expense in terms of people, the time and the thinking. And in the end, it wasn’t scalable for them — or for us.
So, although the kits were a product, no one ever used them in their end-products; that wasn’t their purpose. The kits’ purpose was to provide a working understanding of the physics: To teach people, to help them design their application, or to help them understand what was possible. However, the stage between the initial evaluation period and customers turning it into a working prototype proved to be far too long and expensive.
Today, StretchSense has evolved into a business that provides a much simpler and more integrated product that is incorporated as a part of our customer’s product. We now produce panels of material with sensors and electronics already integrated into them. These integrated sensing systems are customized from the beginning. Customers come to us with their idea, and we design and produce a soft, stretchy sensing system for their sensing requirements.
Stretch sensing system integrated into fabric.
Contrasting the original development kit model — where simply coming up with a working prototype was a big headache — today’s integrated systems are designed to be the first prototype of a wearable. We’ve taken the things we’re great at — customizing sensor technology for customers and helping them make products, standardizing the process, making it repeatable and taking the mystery out of it — and have made it so that designers can more efficiently create a prototype.
To me, the most exciting thing about this evolution is that what used to take our customers months to accomplish can now be done in weeks.
To me, the most exciting thing about this evolution is that what used to take our customers months to accomplish can now be done in weeks, and while most customers are not looking to commercialize quickly, what they do want is the ability to prototype fast. It’s the nature of this business that every day that elapses between the initial concept of a product and receiving the first tangible prototype represents an increased potential to destroy the project. Things change, budgets are spent, companies restructure, competitors launch products, etc. Fast prototyping is also important because the new application needs to evolve with the sensors.
As I see it, what’s most important now is that we can give our customers concrete confidence in our ability to scale our production when they need it. This is possible because we can reuse the tooling made for their prototypes, and thus start mass production immediately. This also means we can be very precise regarding costs as we know the exact setup costs, consumables and labor required to make their product work.
This radical shortening of time and inbuilt scalability means developers can very rapidly create a prototype, see if it works and test out their ideas, and then when they’re ready to launch, they can do so without a hassle. Developers still have to grow their business, they still have to find users, they still have to scale other things, but the core tech component is intrinsically scalable. Overall, this speed and scalability radically reduces the amount of time and the costs of developing a next-generation wearable.