Having acquired the Finland-based wearable technology company Clothing Plus last month, Jabil Circuit Inc., a nearly $17.8 billion electronic manufacturing service supplier, is committed to forging ahead with new products, bulking up staff and bolstering global distribution.
Reached in Jabil’s corporate headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., Joseph McGee, executive vice president of strategy, said the deal was a year in the making. After researching worldwide megatrends and identifying the need for self-monitoring sensor equipped clothing, Jabil decided to pursue Clothing Plus, which created the first heart-rate-sensing shirt in 1998 and mass-produced the first textile heart-rate-sensor strap in 2002.
Based in Kankaanpää, Finland, Clothing Plus develops sportswear, fitness-tracking and medical-monitoring products for Adidas, Garmin, Salomon and Phillips, among others. In Finland, Clothing Plus employs 40 experts in product development, management, testing, sales, marketing and administration. Noting that some sensor-enabled fabrics can require up to 20 layers for shielding protection, McGee emphasized that Jabil was most interested in Clothing Plus from a research and development point of view. In addition to its R&D staff housed in the main office in Finland, Clothing Plus has more than 300 workers in its e-textiles factory in Deqing, China, where laser-cutting, ultrasonic-welding, heat-stacking and an assortment of lamination techniques are completed.
With close to a dozen current clients, the aim is to provide enough manpower for Clothing Plus to increase its base to 30 or 40 customers. Planning to expand the firm’s local and geographical footprint, Jabil is considering multiple locations in the U.S. and Asia, with California being at the top of the list. In some instances, Clothing Plus new hires will share office space in Jabil’s existing 90 locations in 30 different countries. With 180,000 employees worldwide, Jabil already has two large California facilities, McGee noted.
The fact that a number of fashion brands, and not just ones that design fitness-related products, are moving into the wearable space “has opened up a lot more opportunities,” McGee said. That should significantly increase sales in the next three to four years, but McGee declined to quantify that. In addition to fitness, medical and sportswear wearables, Clothing Plus has been working on a number of unrelated innovations, such as pliable fabrics that can be used for intelligent homes. “A few of the unusual ones are still under NDAs so we’re no at liberty to discuss them.” he said.
Jabil executives wouldn’t discuss such ventures publicly even if they could. The firm has a reputation for being closemouthed. “Historically, we don’t discuss any of our customers publicly unless they generate 10 percent of our sales, which would be about $1.8 billion. Most major fashion brands aren’t seeing those kind of numbers and certainly not for wearables,” McGee said. “Prior to being acquired by us, Clothing Plus was not secretive at all. They would go to all the major trade shows and tech conventions and talk to everyone.”
Interest in fitness-related wearables is particularly strong in the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K. and in Scandinavian countries, McGee said. Africa and India, especially regions where medical resources are scarce, hold the greatest potential for medical-related intelligent clothing, McGee said.
The latter will probably take five to 10 years to adopt due in part to Food and Drug Administration approvals and other mandatory regulations.
Developers have a host of variables to consider, such as dermatological factors and the potential for perspiration to result in saline-related corrosion of sensors, McGee said. And while Clothing Plus garments currently do not have GPS devices, McGee noted, “It’s still the early days.” While some consumer watchdog groups consider such tracking information to be controversial, McGee noted that select professional soccer teams and the NFL are exploring the use of GPS-adorned clothing to measure the exact distance athletes are running.
As for sensor-enabled wearables that have yet to be defined, McGee said, “There is a great deal that is still to be developed. Sensors can be used in materials to measure the power of one leg versus the other, which can be used for knee rehabilitation. They can be used to keep track of the amount of fluid in your lungs. That kind of very exacting and specified information can be invaluable.”