One for all: water resistance in the mobile industry

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A handful of high-end devices with the latest innovative features a constant point of discussion and speculation normally dominate the media coverage of the smartphone market. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is just the latest in a line of flagship smartphones sporting industry leading features, but these will take a few generations to down to the mid-to-lower end devices that make up the vast majority of the market.

With brand new features this is understandable, given the considerable investment in time and resource it takes to design premium devices. But why has a feature such as water resistance, that has been around for a number of years already, not made its way into the majority of lower-tier and lower-priced models, in some form or another? Nick Rimmer, Vice President of product and technology strategies at P2i discusses this further.

Expectations = demand
One of the biggest factors here is that consumer expectations are only now beginning to shift, meaning that some level of this feature should be more than the preserve of premium products that are outside of many people’s budgets. When you add in increased consumer awareness to this self-perpetuating cycle, partly due to high profile launches from the likes of Apple and Sony in the last year, the demand increases yet again.

There is clearly a need for protecting handsets from water damage, as it is one of the most common causes of damage of devices. Furthermore, research from IDC indicates that the total number of devices shipped featuring water resistance increased 76% year on year in the first nine months of 2016, compared to the previous year. With this figure only likely to grow over the next few years – with shipments of non-water resistance devices decreasing 7% over the same time period – it’s natural that consumer expectations, in terms of which devices they would expect to be water resistant to some degree, will also shift.

But most manufacturers have not been innovative in providing a solution to this until recently, and the mechanical design protection available is very expensive. The technology exists though to enable them to unlock the rest of the market.

Manufacturing barriers
One of the biggest barriers to using technology that prevents against water ingress in mid-to-low tier devices, is the impact on time it takes to develop, and take to market. Typically, implementation of a water resistant solution can add one to two months to the testing cycle, and if it fails design tests it can take even longer.

Another aspect that cannot be ignored here is cost. Mechanical solutions using seals and gaskets to keep water out are expensive due to the extra engineering, hardware and design compromises that they entail. For instance, the water proofing solutions on high end phones such as the iPhone and Galaxy S7/S8 adds a high additional cost onto the total price of manufacture. The reality is that mechanical solutions just aren’t a financially viable option for the majority of the market considering the additional design requirements needed to factor these in, not to mention the component parts required and the additional expense these incur.

There is also the issue of materials used in the construction of mid-to low tier devices. Water proofing methods such as installing an ‘O-ring’ within the phone require high-strength materials to make the phone as rigid as it needs to be. Whereas top end devices have these rigid metal frames, lower tier smartphones are comprised of a lot more plastic, which won’t provide the rigidity needed to create a completely water tight seal.

Therefore, this issue becomes about more than just the cost of components, but is about fundamentally changing the design and materials of a handset.

The catalyst for change
Needless to say, every manufacturer wants a reliable product, regardless of the price point. And it’s not just users of high-end phones that want a certain guarantee of quality, just as in the same way it’s not just users of high-end phones that require water-resistance; these values are universal.

This is where non-mechanical, nano-coating solutions come into their own. A ubiquitous solution that can be integrated into any number of given device manufacturing scenarios, and can be applied to all types of devices. It protects the whole device regardless of the materials used. And as the process is being refined, the time to coat devices reduces with more throughput and higher volumes being achieved which will drive economies of scale. These savings can then be passed on to the rest of the market and make the offering more attractive to the lower end of the market.

The state of play
The story of water resistance can be compared with the development of internet access on mobile phones. Looking back just ten years to the dawn of the iPhone, a relatively small percentage of the mobile phone market had this feature in the way we understand it today, leveraging the increasing prevalence of 3G networks and advanced wireless network capabilities. But once the preserve of devices such as Blackberry’s, handsets, which had email functionality as standard ahead of many others, it quickly transitioned to the stage we are at now where an email application is omnipresent in the smartphone market, and on the majority of feature phones as well.

And we can already see similar milestones in water resistance adoption taking. For instance, Motorola has been advertising water resistance as part of their suite of reliability features on a broad range of their handsets since way back in 2011. Since then, more handset manufacturers have increased their offering in this space, and once the likes of Apple and Samsung introduced their high-end water resistance products, an industry-wide interest was sparked and the ball started rolling.

It’s not just in established markets where this is happening. The demand for improved reliability on devices in emerging markets – such as India and South East Asia – is also increasing, especially where humidity is a significant factor in the reliability and durability of smartphones. Manufacturers will need to find ways to bring cost effective solutions to the marketplace. The other factor for consideration here is that a device should protect against all kinds of liquid, not just water, and in humid environments sweat, which is considerably more corrosive than water, also has the potential to cause long term damage to a device if allowed to seep in.

There has been a very rapid adoption of low-cost water resistance technologies in these emerging markets due to the different expectations that consumers have in Brazil and India, for instance, compared to the UK and the US. As their wealth grows, consumers are demanding these features, so that they can increasingly use phones in challenging weather environments but also to run micro-businesses or start-ups on the go, for example, which encompasses a broad range of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The mobile industry of the future
There will no doubt be a natural evolution of all products and features within the smartphone industry, as these tend to start at the high end and filter down, and this will be no different for water resistance. In an ‘always-on’ world where consumers are reliant on mobile internet access, increased bandwith, IoT technologies and looking forward to 5G networks, it’s going to be more important than ever that our phones are always available and always connected.

Nano-coating offers an inexpensive solution that provides a strong return on investment for OEMs, with use cases at multiple product price points including at the mid to low end. Hydrophobic coatings can provide the mass market answer to making large segments of the smartphone market water resistant very quickly, democratising the industry and bringing these benefits to all users as well as reducing costs to the network as a whole and allowing the whole industry to develop from these reductions. In terms of aesthetics, there is now little to differentiate any number of smartphone devices from one another, so features and functionality will become increasingly important and water resistance will be an essential part of a smartphone’s DNA in 2017 and beyond.

Anna Flockett 25th May 2017 Electronic Specifier