From Thread Count to Part Count

Here at Card79, we set out on a mission to transform the raw materials of hardware and software into refined user experiences. When creating technologies close to or embedded in the body, we have the unique challenge of dealing with two industries: apparel and electronics.  These are two very different industries. Over the past 30 years, the consumer electronics industry has made huge leaps forward, creating completely new categories that are changing our lifestyles and behaviors. On the other hand, the apparel industry is a much older industry that hasn’t changed nearly as rapidly. Because of these differences, working across these two industries to develop a single product is a huge challenge. 

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the process of how we’ve combined our expertise in the fields of industrial and apparel design to create wearable technologies.

If the glove doesn't fit….

The main challenge of designing smart apparel and wearable tech is that we always have to deal with the diversity of the human body. When we’re designing a hardware product, we typically build low-fidelity prototypes that could simply be a block of foam taped to a straw. But in the case of apparel design, we have to start the creative process by first gaining a deeper understanding of how well a specific product fits and how comfortable it is before we start sketching and considering aesthetics.

In other words, every time we design a wearable item, the apparel design requirements need to lead. That means we always start by building prototypes and patterns to test for fit first, whether it’s using a mannequin to test a garment or a shoe last to test a shoe. Existing tried-and-true physical models give us a point of reference to understand the shape of the object that surrounds the body. 

How does that feel?

The next level of testing is getting feedback from real people. One of the potential challenges with wearables is that hardware worn on the body can feel painful and restrict movement if done poorly. That’s why getting people to tell you what they think subjectively is so important.

One example of testing comfort and fit on a body was the project we did on the Rover, a medical-grade gait-analysis device that helps prevent seniors from falling. The product has both a hard electronics enclosure and a soft textile component. At first, we wanted to put the hardware horizontally around the ankle to make it more low profile and less visible, but we realized that the shape didn’t fit across many different ankle diameters. We tested one prototype in a vertical orientation, and the entire design changed. No matter what ankle size we tested it on, people told us it was super comfortable.

The early prototype to the left seemed like a good direction visually but was not nearly as comfortable as the prototype to the right.

We were able to get valuable learnings and find the best form factor of the wearable device to optimize for comfort before going too deeply into the aesthetic aspect of the product design. 

The prototyping ecosystems

Another process that we have to optimize for is building high-fidelity prototypes for wearable devices. Prototypes vary from low-fidelity, “works-like” prototypes all the way to high-fidelity, “looks-like/works-like” prototypes (models that have both cosmetic details and functions of the final design) where you are much closer to the final products’ aesthetics and functionality but still have not moved to production. 

Within the world of hardware, there is an entire vendor ecosystem designated to build both low- and high-fidelity prototypes. At least two or three vendors contact us weekly, offering to produce our low-fidelity and high-fidelity hardware prototypes.  

High-fidelity soft goods prototyping

Finding the same low- and high-fidelity prototyping ecosystem for soft goods has proven to be a challenge. Almost all high-fidelity apparel prototypes are produced by the factories that will be responsible for producing the final product. The challenge with that approach is that it requires a manufacturer to already be onboard during the design and development process. This can be a challenge since when working on an innovative project a lot can change during the design and development phase which would impact the best manufacturer to pick for the job.

Recently, we started collaborating with a golf equipment company to create a golf glove that keeps its fit for longer. We explored combining stretch materials with leather to improve the properties of the glove. Initially, we worked side by side with an apparel prototyper in our studio to create low-fidelity prototypes. Eventually, we realized that to get the prototypes closer to our final vision of the product, we’d need more advanced machines that are only available to glove manufacturers. As a result, we shifted gears and selected a final manufacturer for the glove who could also help us with high-fidelity prototypes.

Industrial design models (left) have a far more well developed ecosystem than apparel prototypes (right).

When designing wearable tech or smart apparel, you’ll definitely need good prototyping partners that are open to “R & D” projects. Because these partners are harder to find for apparel design, it is worthwhile leveraging your network to build a relationship with a progressive apparel manufacturer early on who is  willing to work with you to develop these complex prototypes. It’s a bit tricky but you almost need to start engaging with vendors before you totally know what the final product will look like.

Manufacturing workflows

Comparing the workflow of manufacturing apparel to manufacturing tech products highlights some major differences. One important thing to consider is that apparel production processes are generally more flexible than those in consumer electronics factories. Changing a pattern while garments are still at the factory is a lot easier than changing an injection molding tool. Another thing to keep in mind is that picking fabric is a very  involved process that has much more nuance than selecting plastic types and also requires a minimum order quantity. That means that you need spend more time early on selecting the right fabric for your product.

Another big challenge that impacts a product’s quality is its supply chain. With wearables, these supply chains are still being developed. When we started manufacturing the Recon Jet smart sunglasses, we had to work with two manufacturers – one producing sunglasses and one producing electronics – assembling the two separate parts at very end. We don’t recommend this since every time there is a handoff of any sort between vendors there is an increased manufacturing risk introduced.

Manufacturing a pcb (left) is a more clearly defined workflow than making a wearable tech device (right).

Ideally, you want everything to happen at one factory so that you control the quality of one vendor that is responsible for the whole process. But presently, we have to work with at least two manufacturers: one that’s responsible for the soft goods and another that’s responsible for the hardware and electronics. One way we’ve dealt with this is by designing better quality control measures in the factories such as building custom testing jigs to include on the production line.

Becoming a catalyst for change

The apparel industry is hard, if not impossible, to disrupt in the way that software and hardware have been disrupted, but we believe that as designers, we can be a catalyst for change. If we continue to bring value to people by creating smart clothes and wearable tech that make their lives better, the supply chains that support these products will evolve to bring together manufacturing processes that have previously functioned separately. Together, we can set the industry in motion and create a new category of products for work, exercise, healing, and pleasure.