The Pentagon recently announced that it is teaming up with major technological organizations and universities to develop high-tech sensory gear for soldiers in order to improve their weapons and monitor their health.
Additionally, the Obama administration will award a Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics to a consortium of 162 companies, universities, and non-profits, led by the FlexTech Alliance. Based in San Jose, the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Hub is the seventh of nine such manufacturing institutes launched by this administration, and the fifth of six manufacturing institutes led by the Department of Defense.
These moves are designed to give a boost to American manufacturing, which hit a slump in the early part of this century. But recovery is on the way — according to the Department of Defense, 900,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created since Feb. 2010. By working with Silicon Valley, the Pentagon hopes to hasten the military’s technology development cycles as well as generate commercial opportunities for the technologies developed at the institute.
The list of participating organizations and institutions reads like a veritable Who’s Who of electronics and semiconductor organizations — for example: Apple, Boeing, Hewlett Packard, General Motors, and Motorola. Participating research universities include Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and MIT. These partnerships, says the DoD, represent “the next chapter in the long-standing public-private partnerships between the Pentagon and tech community.”
“Flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing” is the production of electronics and sensors packaging through new techniques in electronic device handling and high precision printing on flexible, stretchable substrates. Potential products include wearable devices for fitness and medical health monitoring (such as Fitbit and the Apple Watch) as well as military solutions for the warfighter (such as the Land Warrior Integrated Soldier System utilized by the U.S. Army).
Apple has entered the wearables market with the Apple Watch. According to the International Data Corp., Apple is lagging just behind Fitbit after shipping 3.6 million Apple Watches in the second quarter of 2015; Fitbit shipped 4.4 million units. Total shipment volume is up 223.2 percent from Q2 of 2014. Fitbit only ships basic units —“basic” devices don’t run third-party apps, typical of most fitness trackers. Meanwhile, Apple is expected to launch an improved Google Glass-like product. Samsung could surprise everyone, however, if its Gear line of smart watches really takes off.
“Hearables” could also be on the horizon — discreet devices that fit in the ear and track oxygen levels, blood flow, and body temperature, and provide vocal feedback to the user. Apple could be gearing up for a major hearables announcement in light of last year’s $3 billion acquisition of headphone maker Beats Electronic. Not to be outdone, Intel has partnered with rapper 50 Cent to develop smart earbuds that play music and track the user’s heart rate.
Research predicts that the wearable technology market could grow to $80 billion by 2020. The companies that want to stay at the head of the pack will need to create devices that are simple to use and attractive to wear.
This Letter from the Editor appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Controlled Environments.