By 2022 it’s predicted by Forbes that wearable devices will be a $27 billion industry. Medical wearables alone are expected to more than double in growth in a matter of just six years according to MarketWatch.
This growing interest to develop wearable products and garments is pushing fashion and product designers to learn to work together. Unfortunately, when planning and developing wearable products, a lack of understanding of the traditional soft goods development space can cause hiccups.
Sometimes the gap between soft goods specialists and product designers leads to misalignment in the development process or timeline, which can cause big setbacks for the product’s launch. Soft goods can be the wild west for folks unfamiliar with the landscape. Have you ever received a soft goods product sample, only to realize it’s not at all what you were expecting? We have, and it’s never fun.
You will be able to navigate the development of a wearable soft goods product with the help of a few guiding principles: expectations of your manufacturing partners, material sourcing, and construction methods. Understanding these three building blocks will help give your product the best chance to develop smoothly and launch successfully.
"You will be able to navigate the development of a wearable soft goods product with the help of a few guiding principles: expectations of your manufacturing partners, material sourcing, and construction methods."
1. Manufacturers vs. Development Specialists
Soft goods and apparel development are areas of specialized expertise, and there are two main players who can help you navigate them: manufacturers and development specialists. It’s important to know that these two types of people can offer different kinds of help; both are valuable but in very different ways. It’s best to understand the pros and cons of working with a manufacturer, what a specialist can offer, and how to effectively use both manufacturers and specialists to improve the development process and outcome of your product.
We have watched many companies who are new to developing soft goods products make the mistake of starting development with manufacturers who are not familiar with their product category but offer a wide breadth of prototyping for a lower fee. Often, these clients end up having to do a lot of re-work and seek a specialist later in the design process.
This decision is mainly driven by the lower development cost with the guarantee of bulk production for the manufacturer, but often the cost ends up being the same as hiring a specialist from the beginning due to the re-work that must be addressed. The most common type of re-work we see is the creation of multiple sample prototypes that are not meeting the client’s expectations. Often, the client is not equipped with the proper language or knowledge to ask for what they need, and their goals get lost in communication with the manufacturer. Re-work also occurs when a manufacturer is being asked to create something outside of their production strengths or capabilities.
"Re-work also occurs when a manufacturer is being asked to create something outside of their production strengths or capabilities."
When a manufacturing facility is used to conduct design and development, the time, design detail, and care will not always be optimized for the client. This is because a manufacturer needs specifics on what is to be created and typically prefers to work within their existing supply chain. They work best on producing what they know and will be most successful when given a finished technical package that outlines the specifics of a design.
Using a manufacturer for development can lead to a final design, but it means there may be a lot of back and forth communication between the client and manufacturer. Manufacturers are masters of their crafts and are excellent at developing products in their wheelhouse. However, expecting a manufacturer to work outside their comfort zone is not ideal because they may not have applicable history or expertise. This is a crucial thing to consider when producing medical devices. For example, a manufacturer who is unfamiliar with producing a medical device may not think to source materials that meet a specific medical class spec to help pass FDA vetting. They may not be familiar with sizing a garment for the consumer retail industry or for a medical patient population. Having a manufacturer who already knows these kinds of details streamlines your development process and ultimately leads to a better product.
Product and apparel specialists complement each other well when working with a manufacturer. Both parties can bounce ideas off each other and manage a very tight and efficient development process that will transfer more easily to a manufacturing partner. A good example is when integrating a molded medical device with a textile. Apparel and soft goods products do not typically require the same tight tolerances that a molded part does. This sometimes comes as a surprise to product designers and engineers, and is something that needs to be communicated with the manufacturer to ensure their construction methods can blend hard and soft together.
Wearables require the expertise of understanding how to fit the body, grading/sizing a garment, sourcing the appropriate textiles based on function, understanding assembly construction methods, and ensuring the overall product can be manufactured while following a supply chain. That’s a lot of moving parts, and an apparel specialist will help you with each one.
For example, a specialist will ask if the product has to lay smoothly against the body with minimal seams and pressure points. An apparel designer will utilize specific garment construction methods such as 3D knitting or seamless bonding from the intimates industry to achieve those features. Apparel specialists understand how textiles conform to the body and how to pattern comfortable fitting garments based on gender or the body’s silhouette. Comfort is an important part of getting a user to actually wear a product and increase compliance, so it’s to the client’s advantage to work with a specialist that can pull from fashion design techniques to make a product as comfortable as possible.
A good specialist will ask a lot of questions about design requirements, provide proof-of-concept prototypes, and use those prototypes as communication tools to review what is and isn’t working. From there, a soft goods specialist will create flat patterns to understand the geometry of the design and will source materials based off of any necessary industry standards, such as having to follow any medical requirements for bio-compatibility. When all material testing details are finalized, the specialist will either create prototypes for client review, or create a technical package to begin production sample development with a chosen manufacturer.
"Wearables require the expertise of understanding how to fit the body, grading/sizing a garment, sourcing the appropriate textiles based on function, understanding assembly construction methods, and ensuring the overall product can be manufactured while following a supply chain."
Best of Both Worlds
Your product’s requirements for quality, timeline, and budget will determine which path is best suited for the project:
- Using a specialized development team can take a little more up-front time, but will provide a quality golden sample that eases the transfer to manufacturing.
- Creating a technical package and working directly with a manufacturer typically has a shorter timeline in the beginning, but will need more back-end development and time to achieve a quality golden sample and will involve more back and forth communication to ramp up to bulk production.
The best use of a manufacturing partner is from the beginning of a project, but typically not for the development process itself. Instead, we recommend you discuss with your manufacturing partner what is and isn’t possible, the training/purchasing of new equipment, and establishing supply chains. Use your specialist to guide you through the development process, provide prototypes, communicate details with your manufacturer, and finally pass the golden sample onto your manufacturing partner. The more communication and transparency between client, consultant, and manufacturer while utilizing each party for their strengths means fewer chances for miscommunication and more potential for easy transfer to production.
2. Design Requirements with Raw Materials
Sourcing is sadly the forgotten child of many soft goods and wearable projects. Noticing this large gap in the product design industry, it has become our first piece of advice for clients when working on anything that uses textiles.
Industrial and product design understands the importance of selecting the right materials, such as plastics and resins, for functionality, aesthetics, and manufacturing. This is also important in textiles; however, not many industrial designers or project managers realize that textiles have more variables to consider. Variables such as stretch, weave, stitch structure, chemistry, finishes, adhesives, melting points, dyes, elongation, recovery, pilling, crocking, yarn gauge, tensile strength, specialized equipment, yarn structure (and more!) that can affect the performance of a finished good.
Materials sourcing is a chicken and egg timing problem. A soft goods or garment project is built on the foundation of the materials selected. This is where most of the product function and constraints come from and is an important area to place dedicated research. Materials sourcing can act as a parallel process while other project activities are occurring, such as research or sketching. It can provide designers with inspiration and begin conversations of beneficial soft goods construction methods from an early stage. Working with a seasoned sourcing expert will help streamline the development process and navigate issues further down the road.
The most surprising fact about sourcing raw materials is the lead-time for acquiring quantity and colors. Materials on average take 6-9 weeks to be produced and received by the customer.
Another common misconception about materials (rolled goods, yarns, hardware, bonding tapes) is that they are not typically on a shelf waiting to be purchased. Most vendors work on a made-to-order business model and have to receive a PO first to weave, knit, mold, tool, or dye any type of material. If a client requires a custom color, finish, or coating, this will require additional lead time and may increase the minimum order quantity.
It’s best to think about the sourcing effort at the beginning of the design process to account for these long lead times. When prototyping, lean on your sourcing specialist to understand what materials can function as stand-ins while you wait for your actual materials to be produced.
"Materials on average take 6-9 weeks to be produced and received by the customer."
3. Construction Options and How They Differ
There are many manufacturing options and construction methods to consider when producing a soft goods or wearable product. These include:
- cut and sew
- 3D or digital knitting
- thermoforming or compression molding
- seamless bonding
- ultra-sonic or RF welding
- And many more!
It’s important to understand the manufacturing implications when choosing a construction method for your product. Keep in mind that manufacturers are suited for some construction methods, but not all. You will need to select the best manufacturing partner for the techniques needed for your specific product.
We are asked often by our clients about the benefits and tradeoffs between two common methods: a cut and sewn product vs. 3D knit manufacturing. Let’s dive in!
Cut and Sew
|• lower cost• faster development• faster manufacturing• many options for contract manufacturing partners• diversity in construction capabilities and sewing equipment• lower labor skill level required||• lower tolerances on finished parts• potential for human error• production cost variances based on domestic (US) or international• increased production planning• increased assembly steps• potential for a larger supply chain|
|• integrates most functional features into a single, seamless textile• designers can engineer the material to be a custom solution• ability to create functional zones in the design based on knit structures that have mechanical benefits• ability to seamlessly knit the product to shape with minimal panel breaks• reduced human handling• tight manufacturing part tolerances• digital platform• transferable to pairing machinery domestically or internationally• repetitive production||• longer development time due to trials of sampling to get the program and yarn selection correct• limited experienced programmers• limited manufacturers in the US• sometimes increased part cost based on complexity of the design and raw materials|
It’s important to consider these pros and cons, and then talk to your soft goods specialist about whether cut and sew, 3d knitting, another process, or a combination of processes provide the best solution to creating your product.
Something to consider on top of the material and construction itself is the quality level to which it is manufactured. Each manufacturer has their own areas of expertise and products they specialize in producing, as well as different quality standards that are met. For medical devices or garments, we’re frequently asked to find a contract manufacturer that is ISO certified. There are different levels of ISO certifications and not all factories have this quality management system in place domestically or internationally. As a design consultancy, we have found this to be one of the more challenging requirements to solve for medical garment development. There are many contract manufacturers who can product a wearable garment, but to find one that follows very strict development, cleanliness, and documentation management processes proves to be quite difficult.
When manufacturing a medical garment, a company should also focus on finding a partner that has the equipment and experience producing apparel that involves more skilled applications and labor. It is challenging to ask a contract manufacturer who is used to producing molded parts or basic cut and sewn products to switch to manufacturing complex garments that use new technologies.
There is a common misunderstanding that if a contract manufacturer purchases the correct machinery, their laborers will be able to conduct the work. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For example, 3D or digital knitting has a significant skilled labor gap. It will be very challenging and will require an investment in years of training for workers to learn to operate and program a knitting machine. There is currently a shortage of available skill in this area. The good news is there has been a large teaching initiative in universities to get people trained for the knitting industry, but we are not there yet as knitting knowledge is not comparable to cut and sew or other disciplines.
Moving Forward With Your Project
Now that you’re equipped with these three foundational elements to soft goods and wearable development, the future of your product is looking bright. As you move forward with new initiatives, make sure to take these guidelines into account:
- Utilize manufacturing partners AND soft goods specialists from the beginning of the project to ensure a smooth process from development through manufacturing.
- Plan your development timeline according to the expected material lead times and use the correct materials throughout development to ensure functional properties are constructed as intended.
- Carefully select the most appropriate construction method for your product’s needs. Then, partner with manufacturers who are equipped with the right machines and labor to successfully execute the construction methods needed.
With these development best practices in place, the world of wearables is yours to explore. Smart garments, conductive textiles, embedded electronics, robotic wearable devices – the exciting new possibilities are growing every day.
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About The Author
Stephannie Kia, Soft Goods Designer
Stephannie has a true passion for textiles in and out of the office. She specializes in knitting and cut-and-sew development as well as building tech packages and pattern making as part of our soft goods team. Outside the office, if she’s not sewing or going to yoga, she’s enjoying decorating her home and organizing any space that she can.