We are all too familiar with Apple hardware and Apple software. So what is this mysterious Softgoods division that has been on a hiring spree at Apple for the past few months?
Softgoods is one of the more recently created divisions at Cupertino.
According to Apple,
“Apple’s Softgoods Engineering team is relatively new to Apple. We work with textiles, leather, silicone and soft polymers. Our mission is to use these incredible materials to enable new product categories, and to enhance Apple’s existing product lines.
Bringing Apple engineering and precision to products made of soft materials is an exciting challenge and requires a creative and open minded approach.
We have an inclusive and talented team of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds. We all work together in a beautiful customized lab where we design, engineer, and develop the best Softgoods products in the world.”
Hiring activity has shown an uptick at this nascent Apple division. The Softgoods team has been hiring product design engineers, engineering project managers and biomechatronics hardware engineers.
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Is there more than accessories at Apple’s Softgoods division?
There has been a lot of interest in smart fibers and textiles in recent years.
This interest is not only shaped by innovative use cases but also shaped by elements of sustainability which happens to be a key facet of Apple’s brand.
When Apple released its new Apple band last year, the braided solo loop; it was one of the few ‘softgoods’ products in market whose sustainability footprint was above par. Not only was the band made out of recyclable yarn but the dye that is used on these materials is also environment friendly.
The real technological innovation that might be happening in the corridors of Softgoods division is probably in the area of smart textiles and associated technology.
Many large tech companies such as Google ( Project Jacquard), as well as smaller start-ups, have been exploring textiles and fibers that are connected.
Apple has had several patents published in the area of smart electronic fibers and textiles over the last couple of years.
The company has explored the idea of a knitted fabric based glove with sensors and haptic components, a fabric based keyboard, absorption correction for fabric touch sensing layer and more.
There is however one Apple patent that stood out for us since we are interested in digital health and wearables.
Apple’s Smart Fabrics with health sensors
The patent ‘Fabric-based items with stretchable bands’, Patent # 10849557, was filed in Sept 2018 and approved in 2020.
The technology described on this patent reveals a novel circuitry that may be coupled to strands of material in the stretchable band. The circuitry may include sensor circuitry for making measurements on the body part such as electrocardiogram measurements, blood pressure measurements, and respiration rate measurements.
Wireless communications circuitry in the fabric-based item may be used to communicate wirelessly with external electronic equipment.
One of the challenges around smart fabrics is how do you design something that is easy to maintain and clean. (Think Laundry!)
The team proposes several ideas around this in this patent.
“The fabric-based item may be configured to sustain relatively high temperatures such as those associated with laundering of clothing. For example, the fabric-based item may have supercapacitors for energy storage and other electrical components that can be laundered in hot water and dried in a clothes dryer without damage. To withstand damage when the fabric-based item is stretched, fabric may include strengthening strands and conductive strands may be provided with meandering paths and more slack than the strengthening strands.”
One of the lead engineers on this patent was Daniel Sunshine, who has since left Apple and retired.
As a product design manager, Dan founded, recruited and led advanced products and technology team within Apple’s Softgoods organization.
Other engineers identified in the patent worked at the Special Projects Group for Hardware engineering at Apple.
Apple’s Softgoods team might be working on different wearable ideas in the form of smart textiles and fibers.
Today most of the health-related metrics are being tracked by the Apple Watch. The Softgoods division research shows how the watch band can be made of smartfibers that are conductive and could house sensors as well.
This patent and several others show why Apple’s Softgoods division may be looking at tracking health and cardio metrics via smart athletic wear in the future.
Athletic apparel brands such as Lululemon are a $40B market cap company today.
Legacy textile makers in Japan and Taiwan have seen successful turnarounds in their businesses recently by adopting smart textiles and associated technology.
According to market reports, the smart fabrics for sports and fitness market are expected to grow with a CAGR 17.92%, during the forecast period (2018 – 2023)
If Apple can figure out how to marry hardware, software and services into some of these new Softgoods product lines, it could definitely become a promising business segment in the future for the Cupertino giant.