Flex-tronics - The Next Hardware Frontier
If you’re reading this then you’re likely a techie; if you’re a techie then you’ve likely already heard of flexible electronics, aka flex circuits, aka flexible printed circuits. And you surely already know that flex-tronics will be one of the next big things, but did you know that as of 2012 they are a $10B business? Yup, they are a multi-billion dollar industry thanks to the support and start-up capital injected by the Flex Tech Alliance (alliance members include Fujifilm, HP, Qualcomm, Lockheed Martin), “it is an industry that is nascent but will grow rapidly. We’re already starting to see new kinds of applications in plastic memory for toys and sensors for aircraft,” says Flex Tech Alliance chief Dr. Malcolm Thomas.
For any techno-n00bs out there, flex-tronics are electronic devices that are flexible and bendy in nature due to their electronic circuits being printed/painted on with flexible plastic substrates. These substrates are created via photolithographic technology using materials like polyimide, PEEK or a simple transparent conductive polyester film. In simple terms a sort-of printer sprays circuit cells onto a flexible substances, in the same way that a printer sprays ink onto a page to print.
If you’re wondering how the industry made it to $10B a year, the uses for flex-tronics have exploded. In the beginning it was thought they would be useful for replacing wire harnesses on cars, rockets and satellites, in static applications like cameras and dynamic applications like foldable cellphones and OLED smartphone screens, but it turns out the industry has come up with several other newsworthy uses for them:
- The healthcare industry could be revolutionized via electronic ‘smart’ Band-Aids and skin patches, which could report on wound healing, vital signs, infections, etc.
- Goods manufacturing industry like the garment industry who could create wearable electronic t-shirts, cheaply.
- Aircraft design in the aerospace industry, due to its incredible lightweight.
- Digital signage, printing and packaging like posters, billboards and containers. There are already a couple projects in the works to create flexible-glass for digital signage that could display digital imagery. (Let’s take a moment to enjoy the irony that the electronic medium that essentially killed print media might assist in its revival).
- In e-readers like the Kindle who could make lighter, thinner, flexible e-readers.
- In solar energy, as a potential roofing material.
- As sensors for soldiers that could monitor their position, heart rate, injuries, stress levels, etc.
- Smart trading and playing cards that display changing information on a digital display. I’m personally picturing Settlers of Catan players going ape-shit for this technology.
- Printed batteries.
- Medical innovations in areas like glucose test strips, neuro-prosthetic devices and many more.
- Athlete performance-monitoring gear (hence why Nike and Reebok are investing in the technology).
The undoubted reason for the huge spike in the uptake of flex-tronics technology is that the technology is already readily available, despite its new status, and the flexibility of product manufacturing–often at a lower cost than current manufacturing technologies. “You get much more product flexibility, lower costs, and innovation,” says Thompson. “We’re talking about something that is really low-cost that can be re-purposed.”