NextFlex proves manufacturability of flexible hybrid electronics process
NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Institute (San Jose, California), announced it has successfully proven the robustness of the FHE manufacturing process, producing multiple functional samples of a flexible Arduino system. As part of the Flexible Arduino Microcontroller Project, NextFlex redesigned a device typically built on a rigid printed circuit board (PCB)—by printing and attaching thin bare die on a flexible substrate while maintaining the performance associated with traditional packaged ICs. This achievement is ultimately intended to help realise FHE’s enormous potential for creating ubiquitous IoT and sensor products for consumer, commercial, and military applications.
Arduino is an open-source, microcontroller-based electronics prototyping platform that utilises versatile, easy-to-use hardware and software. As a result, Arduino has achieved a high degree of popularity with developers ranging from novices to seasoned experts because it is open source, with publicly available design files and bills of materials (BOMs), and low cost. Up until now, however, Arduino products have been built with traditional packaged die microcontrollers, which deliver high performance and functionality, but have design limitations (fragile, rigid, bulky), therefore complicating integration into newer sensor devices that may be flexible or curved in design.
NextFlex tackled this design challenge head on by developing a process flow for manufacturing a flexible Arduino that reduced the number of process steps by almost two thirds when compared with traditional electronics manufacturing processes. NextFlex replaced the traditional circuit board with a thin, flexible plastic sheet and used digital printing processes for circuit elements. Die attach of a thin bare die eliminated traditional microcontroller packaging while further enabling flexibility of the product. The new process translates to an anticipated savings in manufacturing time and cost, as well as a significant reduction in the end-product weight – the flexible Arduino is only a third of the weight of the rigid Arduino Mini board.
“The possibilities for FHE technology are virtually limitless,” said Dr Benjamin Leever, the AFRL Advanced Development Team leader and NextFlex Government chief technology officer. “Proving the manufacturability of this technology through an open-source platform will expand FHE’s reach even further by providing everyone from industrial product developers to high school students with the opportunity to innovate on new electronics concepts.” He added, “We are pleased to have teamed with NextFlex on this project and look forward to the next steps in the optimisation process. This is truly a momentous achievement for the FHE community.”
Caption: NextFlex has proven the robustness of its FHE manufacturing process (photo: NextFlex)