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10 Years After Start, FHE in Commercial Use

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Like a programmer who sees his code running in a commercial application for the first time, the flexible hybrid electronics people at NextFlex are seeing the results of their years of work pay off.

NextFlex’s flexible hybrid electronics fab is a hub for cutting-edge manufacturing of the emerging technology. (Source: NextFlex)

The flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) industry is less than 10 years old, and there are commercial products on the market in health care, wearables and medical diagnostics. GE, for example, has announced several FHE-containing products in health care and medical diagnostics.

Making FHE manufacturing possible are materials such as Kapton (the brand name for polyimide film invented by DuPont), substrates and screen-printable inks as well as equipment for production. In addition, there is a lot of interest in FHE applications for defense, radiofrequency communications and automobiles due to these electronics’ size, novel design and weight.

These conclusions are in NextFlex’s recently released special study, “Assessment of the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Ecosystem.” 

Scott Miller, director of technology, NextFlex (Source: NextFlex)

“The fact that people are now saying, I have a product that’s on the market and two or three products that are going to be on the market in one to two years … that means it’s in late-stage product development already: It’s not a conceptual thing,” Scott Miller, director of technology at NextFlex, told EE Times. “You’ve got a timeline associated with that. And so that, to me, is really wildly positive.”

Included and named—an unusual step in a survey—in the non-scientific study were 30 commercial companies in the United States. They are NextFlex members and non-members alike, and they represent a cross-section of the FHE ecosystem. The companies were limited to a domestic geography because NextFlex is an institute within Manufacturing USA and, as such, its job is to advance the FHE ecosystem in the United States.

Flexible armbands ensure safety during aircraft wing inspection. (Source: U.S. Air Force)

Participants ranged from W.L. Gore & Associates, the $4.5-billion fluoropolymer manufacturer whose wide-ranging materials are in such products as Oral-B Glide dental floss, as well as FHE, to 219 Design, an engineering solutions provider with more than 20 staffers that originated in Stanford University’s ME218 class two decades ago.  

Dalen Keys, a former DuPont executive, conducted the survey by doing individual interviews with the respondents to get their in-depth perceptions. He’s on a first-name basis with most, if not all, of them and was chosen partly for the level of trust and candor that familiarity would create.

Sharing Miller’s happiness with the survey’s results is Art Wall, director of operations for NextFlex’s fab in San Jose, Calif.: “There were four respondents that said the stage of their projects is at full-rate production.”

Can data crack reliability nut?

Even with all of the ecosystem’s success, it is no surprise there is still work to be done in such a young industry.

To further develop the domestic FHE industry, NextFlex staffers and its members have developed “common frameworks” for testing, which should lead to standards, and started a knowledge base of the thousands of materials options. Both should help de-risk activities in the ecosystem.

“There are actually so many choices when it comes to materials in terms of substrates and inks and epoxies,” Wall said. “It’s fantastic: You’ve got all these options. It’s also a terrible burden.”

Wall’s referring to the process of determining which materials to use for a particular application.

“Another thing that is starting to really help is that we’re starting to build that knowledge base of, if you’re going to use this, use that and don’t use (another option).” 

Existing barriers to growth include technical issues to be addressed, but survey respondents overall put greater emphasis on reliability, manufacturability, and cost vs. existing alternatives.

“These concerns are typical for evolving new technologies and must continue to be addressed to facilitate FHE adoption,” according to the study.

Opinions on the top impediment depended on the market served by the respondent. For example, manufacturability and cost were the biggest issues for participants serving the automotive segment. Medical diagnostics’ top barrier was technical issues. And those serving the defense sector were equally concerned about manufacturability and reliability.

FHE are the basis for “labs on the skin” to collect and analyze sweat. (Source: Epicore Biosystems Inc.)

Having manufacturability, which leads to product yields, and reliability issues are problems that indicate a certain level of maturity in the industry, in Miller’s opinion.

“By the time you get to looking at the yield and reliability, you’re at the end game,” he said. “And so it’s not surprising that those are the things that people are saying need to be addressed now.”

Wall recalled early days in NextFlex’s seven-year existence and contrasted them with the present.

“When we first started this, it would take months for us to get some of the first working articles from a new design,” he said. “Some of our most recent designs, we’ve had high yields from the very first batch.”

Art Wall, director of fab operations, NextFlex (Source: NextFlex)

On the other hand, “Reliability is a tough nut to crack,” Wall said.

The institute’s “nutcracker” is data. It started collecting reliability-related data two years ago, and Wall is just now starting to feel comfortable they have enough to analyze and make meaningful interpretations, he said.

“This is a journey—it’s not something that you do overnight.”


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