‘Stretchable’ Electronics and the Dangers of Introducing Innovation

With foldable smartphones dominating the tech news cycle as of late, one would be forgiven for believing the future of so-called “stretchable” electronics is focused squarely in that sphere. In fact, stretchable electronics is based on technology that is altogether different than what makes a Galaxy Fold slip comfortably into the tightest of pockets.

Imagine fully conductive electronic material that not only can fold, but can expand and match its form to whatever plane it finds itself upon or attached to. This could be the future of wearable devices, but this could also be envisioned as artificial, self-monitoring, self-healing “skin,” which would represent one of the biggest breakthroughs in the medical industry since robotic prosthesis control.

This is accomplished through one of two methods; either the product is created from electronically conductive material that inherently possesses the characteristics needed to be twisted, expanded, etc., or the material used during assembly is purposely put under conditions to give it such characteristics (silicon, for example, while brittle, can be grown on a pre-stretched surface and then compressed). Both methods have their inherent advantages and disadvantages, but as OEMs race to make the technology more commercially viable, it quickly becomes apparent that regardless of the development methods, it speaks to a growing relationship between electronic inventory supplier and OEM that just might lead to a consolidation of the industry not unlike what is being seen in aerospace.

The nature of power involving stretchable electronics is another example. The unique nature of the material requires designers to think outside the box to find viable charging solutions that do not actively endanger the wearer. Nanogenerators are one such solution, which harnesses kinetic energy from the applicant to power the device. Another solution is micro solar-powered generators, which can be interwoven into the material. Each solution stretches far beyond the basic capabilities of a traditional component manufacturer.

Looking deeper, a transition to technologies such as this, should it be incorporated to its fullest potential, has the ability to bypass the traditional electronic component and semiconductor markets that have buoyed the industry for generations. This has implications both positive and negative for the industry depending on the unique characteristics of the OEM. On one hand, OEMs who require such technologies will no longer have a need to directly compete with others for the same pool of commoditized components, which would eliminate the potential for supply chain disruptions related to allocation, component shortages, or other such issues.

On the other hand, operating outside the market also means accepting a degree of supply chain inflexibility in regards to inventory procurement. In a traditional market, supply chains have an inherit ability to pivot when the situation requires them to. Should a component manufacturer transition a component toward obsolescence, for example, OEMs have the option of exploring the market for suitable alternatives. In extreme cases, OEMs could also choose to explore third-party vendors, even if such a situation is not ideal due to a significant price markup for inventory procured this way.

If new, innovative components are introduced for an extremely limited market of buyers (or even a single buyer), however, when those components are obsoleted, there is nowhere for the OEM to pivot. Without an alternative means of procurement, OEMs who become early adopters of such revolutionary technology run the risk of prematurely discontinuing their offerings before they are given a chance to be adopted by a wider audience. Exceptions do exist, but often new innovative ideas take time to “catch on” and become widely profitable. If OCMs are not willing to accept a limited market with limited profit margins until such technology becomes viable, then no one — the OCM, the OEM, or the consumers they ultimately serve — wins.

This is why, especially in these exciting but largely unexplored frontiers, it will be critical for OEMs to make a firm commitment to the inventory they require upfront. A Last Time Buy Solution from Partstat, for example, allows OEMs to acquire all of the inventory required to support the lifecycle of their products without sacrificing working capital. Having such foresight mitigates an OEM’s dependence on component manufactures and allows them the opportunity to provide their technologies to consumers long enough to understand if such a direction has long-term viability.

Few dispute the real-world implications of technologies such as stretchable electronics, but creating a new market takes patience and a firm commitment from all parties involved to maintain the course — at least until a sample size has been created to sufficiently draw viable conclusions. OEMs who attempt to make such a radical leap should be commended, but they must ensure that their supply chain is prepared to make the leap with them.

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