Multek CTO Excited About the Challenges of the Fast-Moving Wearables Market
At IPC APEX EXPO 2015, held in San Diego, Calif. I had the opportunity to sit with Dr. Joan Vrtis to discuss the rapidly evolving wearables market, especially for medical, and the myriad questions that must be addressed. We also touched on Multek’s contribution to the wearables industry and what it sees as the main challenges to putting their circuits into various applications.
Barry Matties: Good morning, Joan. Why don't you start by telling me a little bit about what's that like being chief technology officer at Multek. I understand it is a recent position. Congratulations!
Dr. Joan Vrtis: Thank you very much. Multek is an industry leader in printed circuit technology, and the wholly owned subsidiary of Flextronics. As the chief technology officer, I’m looking at the wearable technology and how we can put our printed circuits into applications. So for Multek, it's really the solutions of what we can offer on the printed circuit side, whether it's a rigid circuit, a flex circuit, a rigid-flex and even things that can stretch and bend. We must be prepared for the broad markets we serve, specifically in the wearables. That's currently where I've been putting most of my effort.
Matties: Wearables is a fast-moving market, isn't it?
Vrtis: Yes, it is.
Matties: What is the state of the market as you see it, currently?
Vrtis: One of the things we've seen just recently is the expansion of the number of ideas as to what should be a wearable. How do we help translate these ideas to product and how do we market them? Some trends regarding wearables are in close proximity to the body, on the body and in the body. For example, the wristband type of technologies, such as activity band, watch, smart watch. Then there are the wearables on skin, which includes patch-like technologies used for authentication. Now, wearables ideas are growing, as inventors and companies look at putting electronics into a fabric. Can the button be used as the connection for the continuity of the circuit? Can the zipper be part of the solution to turn on and off the electronics if placed in a safety jacket? How do we integrate the components that go with that? We have to consider power, wireless, etc. And if you want something that's going to move—a gyroscope, or accelerometer—how do we put all of these components in and how do we select those components?
On the printed circuit side, historically we're used to circuit boards being like 2D structures, thus they would be flat, and then we would place the components on and go. But now we also have to take into account that they're going to bend and move. When it starts getting into the apparel side, do you make that cloth fabric your printed circuit substrate? Those are the things that people are coming to us with and saying, “Hey, can you guys do apparel?” But what does that mean? Are you going to wash it? There are a lot of questions to ask.
Matties: With the power technology in apparel and wearables, certainly washing must be a big issue.
Vrtis: Yes, it is a big issue, as is drying.
Matties: What's the craziest thing that someone has approached you with?
Vrtis: Let's see. I've had some very interesting requests for solutions with the printed circuit, but the craziest probably doesn’t need to be recorded here.
Matties: That’s okay; we can leave it to the imagination.
Vrtis: The important thing is that they needed all of the same components I have been talking about. They needed power and they needed some way to have this wireless to connect.
Matties: Let's talk about the market a little bit. What's the size of the market right now, the way you are seeing it?
Vrtis: Wow, it's in the billions! I’ve read eight billion is predicted in the next couple of years.
Matties: Where was that just a few years back?
Vrtis: It was a twinkle in the eye. It started with these activity band-type systems. I think Nike was one of the first, and I'm not promoting any product, but I recall as a runner, you would put the accelerometer in your shoe and if you had an iPhone, it would connect to it. Then Nike put it on a wrist. It was a very interesting transfer of the product. If you look back in time and you think back to the 1960s, one of the first things I remember in wearables was the feedback technology. Take the mood ring, for instance. The mood ring, if you think about it, was a wearable device that could tell the mood of the person based on a thermotropic technology system. That was the first one that I remember, but electronically, my experience was probably running with the Nike band.
Matties: You have talked about flex and all the challenges in the field. But in terms of manufacturing wearables, what are your challenges?
Vrtis: As I stated, almost everything we've done in the past have really been 2D, flat printed circuits, where you place it in the end product and the printed circuit never moves again; it stays static. Now that wearable electronics products move, the printed circuit has to move, the assembly has to move, and a better understanding of the use condition to maintain circuit integrity has to be understood. Printed circuits are primarily copper and polymer systems, the dielectric—what materials are chosen is based on what the requirements are of the end product. In my group we understand the end-product so we can engineer and select those materials best suited for a reliable, wearable product.
Matties: You’ve mentioned that electronics can learn from other industries—like apparel for instance?
Vrtis: Apparel is one. From an electronics standpoint, we're getting smarter in that area. How do we integrate our electronics into that fabric system? Do you use the fabric as your substrate, base system and print directly on the fabric, or place it in the fabric? Printed electronics is going to be very important in the apparel side, where there are multiple circuit pattern application options such as stencil print, screen print, inkjet, and others. Making the circuit pattern on a fabric is fairly simple, but when you are putting that it into a jacket or some sort of a shirt to wear, how do you link all of the circuits together?
Matties: So if we fast-forward 10 years from now, the level of complexity and functionality has got to be just crazy.
Vrtis: Consider what happened with the phones. It's amazing the amount of density that is now in the phones from a printed circuit standpoint. The displays have become so much better and bigger. If you think about a wearable, everything is going to have to be some sort of flexible circuitry, and be able to handle stresses such as flexing; the material side of the business and the equipment side are truly going to enable what can happen. Getting in front of that and positioning with road mapping activities that predict the trends is essential. Other aspects, of course, are power and recharging requirements. Right now, you can easily plug in a phone, but if you're wearing one of these smart watches or it's a medical device and you want or need it 24/7, how do you recharge? What does the battery look like? What happens when you immerse it water? There are a lot of things that need to converge to make advanced wearable solutions happen. In 10 years, I think the material side, the equipment side, and definitely the vision of people thinking of these things that seem way out of the box are all going to drive some of the new technologies.
Matties: Is there anything else you would like to share about this technology?
Vrtis: Yes, probably one more thing. One of the very important things in wearable products is making sure it has sustainability. In the medical sector of the business of Multek and Flextronics, we are seeing very interesting opportunities in wearable technology. Of course, in some cases it has to go through a lot of regulatory steps. What has been learned from the consumer side of business is now transcending into the medical side and that sustainability is going to be critical.
Matties: When I think of medical and wearables, I think of extending lives, because of the instant feedback and the potential for notification that something might be happening prior to an event.
Vrtis: All these wearables are really part of this intelligence of things, right? You want to connect everything. People talk about big data…what is that data and how can we learn from it? The world is now connected. The formatting of connecting, the data of connecting and then also making sure there is security around that data is really going to be important. Since so many people want to have their phones connected to other things, the phone is definitely the hub, which is how I see it for probably the next few years—until something new comes out. I don't know what that is yet. But the phone will be the hub for anything wearable. When you get into the medical applications, this technology has the opportunity to help so many people because the patient can be at home and the doctor or professional can receive information from the patient’s wearable system in real time status and make some tweaks, via a phone call, or notify the patient to come in for a visit.
Matties: It's an exciting time to be alive. Of course, when the toaster came along that was pretty exciting.
Vrtis: That was pretty cool, too! (laughs)
Matties: Not that I remember it specifically, but I can imagine, “Look what we can do with our bread!” Okay, moving right along, in terms of Multek and Flextronics, where’s the manufacturing taking place?
Vrtis: We manufacture globally. Flextronics has more than 200K employees operating in more than 100 locations in 30 countries. Our high-volume manufacturing in Multek takes place in Northfield, Minnesota, and Zhuhai, China. In total, we have an annual capacity of more than 36 million square feet of printed circuits. And we continue to make investments in additional capacity and technologies to grow our business. We support every industry and we're in every industry where printed circuits are needed. We leverage earnings across multiple industry applications to help enable solutions in the wearable market, and we provide printed circuit technology to automotive, aerospace, white goods, infrastructure and mobile communications. So we have a very broad knowledge base to service these markets.
Matties: Joan, thank you for sharing your story with us.
Vrtis: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.