FlexTech’s 2nd annual workshop on health, safety and biosensor applications drew an audience of 65+ end users, product designers and component suppliers to discuss the latest issues in wearable electronics. Topics ranged from product introductions to new sensor technologies to innovative materials and components.
Leading off was Kim Scheffler of adidas, the global sporting goods company, who previewed the micoach system of wearable monitors. The premise behind micoach is to fabricate clothing with sensors embedded or attached that can monitor heart rate, and that are durable, washable and able to function in a moving and moist environment. Scheffler outlined the challenges these attributes represent to a designer and the substantial demand they are seeing from the market. These products are designed for a diverse set of athletes ranging from individuals training for a neighborhood 10K run to university and professional sports teams. Presently, all U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS) teams and several European soccer clubs are employing adidas’ micoach.
Next, speakers from Infinite Corridor Technology (ICT) and MC10 helped define the wearable electronics space as ‘flexible and stretchable’. That is, fabrics or materials must conform to the body shape – and continue to do so after repeated stresses – as well as be able to be pushed and pulled in different directions. ICT showed how this could be achieved through novel printed circuit boards, while MC10 reviewed the concepts behind thinning and de-packaging of silicon chips. The companies agreed sensors that are part of clothing must be multi-functional, capable of measuring a heart rate, but also skin temperature and hydration.
A presentation from PARC noted that the key elements of the wearable electronics product design ecosystem include digital fabrication for small lots, ubiquitous computing, data analytics and cloud based design tools. GE and the University of California at San Diego addressed specific sensor technologies. UCSD explained its research in electrochemical sensors and detailed how bodily fluids can be used to power wearable devices.
Several speakers, including those from Imprint Energy and Princeton University, reinforced the need for data analytics. Devin McKenzie of Imprint Energy called the proliferation of mobile and wearable devices a “data swarm” with the ability to capture and transmit information as the key challenge. He noted that reliable and assured power is needed for these and other device functions and outlined the challenges that exist in achieving those goals. Challenges and opportunities in wearable electronics for health monitoring were summed up in Jeff Stuart’s presentation on the newly formed Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium (NBMC). The Lockheed Martin researcher noted that multiple engineering and scientific disciplines must come together to successfully build a functioning device including electronics, microfluidics, and packaging.
The day before the workshop, FlexTech sponsored two multi-faceted tours that demonstrate the promise of printed and flexible electronics.
The first tour took place at qb3, the East Bay Innovation Center (EBIC), a property managed by Wareham Property Group. Over 15 participants heard how the EBIC operates, the advantages and challenges of locating startups in the incubator environment and saw how small, bio-tech firms are able to rent small bench and office space, while taking advantage of shared resources. While most facilities provide water and electrical service to tenants, qb3 EBIC takes that several steps further to provide exhaust hoods, EHS services, internet, and other business services to its members. A representative of the Wareham Group noted, “We provide start-ups in the bio-tech space ‘Innovation in a Box’”. The average company locates in the space for 15-18 months, using the time to prove their idea is viable and a go or no-go decision can be made based on results. Qb3 opened in July 2011 and currently has 22 companies in residence.
The second tour, on the campus of the Univ. of California at Berkeley, was segment into three parts, the Marvell Nanofabrication Lab tour; presentations on the vision and work of UC in printed electronics; and tours of the “Hive”.
Lab director, Bill Flanders, gave the introduction to the 2-year old Marvell labs. Over 90 faculty, 400 graduate and post-graduate students, and many industry ‘members’, utilize the nano-fabrication facility. Tours of Class 100 and Class 1000 clean rooms illustrated the professional structure and impressive equipment available to those seeking to explore concepts in nanofabrication, including industry members. Flanders demonstrated the equipment management network as he stressed their commitment to providing the space and equipment needed for every project brought to the lab by one of the members.
Dr. Vivek Subramanian of the Electrical Engineering Center (EECS) presented the multi-department vision of the printed electronics program at Berkeley. He outlined the fact that today’s personal devices are great for accessing the cloud (e.g., the internet) but they do not send information about itself and its surroundings to the cloud – as a sensor system. If we fill our world with sensors that can take action based on what they sense – we will need to make them ubiquitous and cheap. Thus, his team has been investigating materials and processes to do this. For example, he has printed with a gravure process, lines in the 5micron range, and created self-registering materials to ensure connectivity.
Dr. Ana Claudia Arias is working in the Swarm lab investigating device and systems integration. Ana’s vision is that by 2030, it will be the age of the ‘unpad’ and electronic devices as we know them will disappear. Instead, they will be spun into our clothing and bodies. They will be lower power and be in constant wireless communication with the cloud. The links will be short and localized.
Together with other faculty and in close contact with industry, Drs. Subramanian and Arias are working to bring the concept of distributed intelligence to the world, starting with the ideas being germinated in the HIVE of activity at UC Berkeley. Based on the coverage of the tour, the amazing brain power and the young minds being put to their vision, this vision will be reality in our lifetimes.