Water resistance and handset design in 2017

Water resistant handsets are now the fastest growing segment in the smartphone industry.

(Image: © Image search: Shutterstock/nenetus)

Following the release of flagship devices such as the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 in 2016, water resistant handsets are now the fastest growing segment in the smartphone industry. But, what does this mean for handset design in 2017? Ady Moores, CEO of P2i, looks at recent research from IDC and explains how hydrophobic nano-coating technology can support OEMs when looking to incorporate this increasingly sought after feature.

Consumer expectations are invariably changing

In 2016, we saw mobile handset design change dramatically. Two of the leading manufacturers, Samsung and Apple, finally incorporated liquid ingress protection into the design of their flagship models and consumer expectations have never been clearer. YouGov also discovered that, when choosing a device, after battery life and shatterproof screens, water resistance was the most important feature influencing consumers decisions.

IDC discovered that liquid damage is now the second most common cause of handset damage, after shattered screens – accounting for a third of repairs (35 per cent). This is not a surprising figure; for the normal every day user, accidental splashes and spills can happen easily, so it is easy to see why water resistance has very quickly become an expected feature on smartphones.

Only one in 13 manufacturers protect against liquid damage despite demand

Astonishingly, IDC also estimates that over 900,000 smartphones are damaged by liquids every day. For a number so high, why do only 27 out of the 360 manufacturers tracked in the report, offer some type of liquid resistance? Improving smartphone resistance to spills, sprinkles and perspiration is clearly one of the key solutions to customer satisfaction. 

Consequently, the number of manufacturers offering this resistance needs to rise in-line with consumer demand, and I fully believe 2017 will be the year this happens. To ensure customer satisfaction, loyalty and in turn revenue growth, some level of water resistance needs to be more than just a feature on high-end devices. 

Shipments of smartphones that offer some level of protection against water or other liquids rose in the first 6 months of 2016, increasing by 45 per cent, while shipments of devices without such resistance declined by 17 per cent in the same period. This only confirms what 2017, 2018 and maybe 2019 could have in store for manufacturers who do not incorporate this technology. 

Two of the pioneering handset manufacturers that have been offering water resistance as standard have been Motorola and Sony. Now that Samsung and Apple have followed suit on their latest high end devices, the percentage of liquid resistant devices on the market is growing in share year on year, and the next twelve months will be no exception. 

The iPhone 7 announcement has had a particularly big impact on the market and we have seen the level of interest and enquiries from other manufacturers looking for water resistant solutions sky-rocket at P2i, as manufacturers recognise that the status quo in the industry has shifted.

What is the solution?

Manufacturers need to be weighing up their options sooner rather than later, for how they will approach the future of handset design. Commonly, there are two main categories they can consider to add protection from liquid smartphones today. Most manufacturers are turning to mechanical solutions such as gaskets and seals to offer complete protection. But, issues such as heat retention and the fact that they increase the cost and complexity of handset design mean that mechanical sealing is not necessarily the silver bullet when it comes to liquid protection.

Physical seals and gaskets are great for brand new devices; covers and ports can provide a high level of protection against liquid damage. However, any drop or bend can compromise the seal and thus their ability to maintain the advertised levels of water protection that is delivered. Any covers also need to be intact and closed at all times to prevent liquids or dust getting into the device, so there is no room for forgetfulness. 

How about hydrophobic?

Surface-coating is another option that more and more manufacturers are beginning to take advantage of. When the wetting angle in a test environment is more than 90 degrees, the surface-coating is defined as hydrophobic. Liquids simply roll off the hydrophobic coating, due to the low surface energy a coated device will generate. The coating is basically invisible and it can be applied to any type of device without impacting the electrical circuitry or components such as the speaker or microphone. 

Offering hydrophobic nano-coating creates a repellent surface and maintains higher levels of protection when compared to standard coatings. Nano-coating is a more financially viable option compared to physical mechanical seals, enabling mass-scale application and integration with the production cycle, perfect for manufacturers who do not have the resources or the time to deliver a fully tested physical liquid barrier.

This option also keeps costs down for consumers when they buy their new mobile phone, by not significantly increasing the cost of manufacturing a handset. For the trials and tribulations of everyday life, it can withstand the day-to-day accidents that most people experience, caused by rain, condensation, sweat and running water. 

Those looking for a much higher level of protection for use in harsher environments and terrains, a ruggedised device is still probably the most sensible option, putting aesthetics and design on the back-burner. 

Conclusion

To me, IDC’s research demonstrates the huge market opportunity for this type of technology. Motorola handsets already offer a level of water resistance on every device now available in their product line, showing that it can be achieved in a way that is cost effective to both manufacturers and consumers alike.

A relatively inexpensive solution that provides a strong return on investment, with use cases at multiple product price points, hydrophobic nano-coating is the mass market answer to making large segments of the smartphone market water resistant very quickly. From a purely aesthetical point of view, there is now little to differentiate any number of smartphone devices from one another, so features and functionality will increasingly come into focus and water resistance will be an essential part of a smartphone’s DNA in 2017. 

Ady Moores, Group CEO, P2i
Image search: Shutterstock/nenetus

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ady Moores is Group CEO of liquid repellent nano-coating developer P2i. Having previously served as CFO, Ady supported P2i’s fast growth from start-up to substantive, profitable business.