Flexible Electronics Put “Smart” in Unexpected Places
We’re starting to see advanced “smart” technologies move beyond the phone in your pocket and into new areas you would not expect. New monitoring and automation capabilities are being added to everything from aircraft to appliances, from the home to the battlefield, in ways that were not even conceived of a few short years ago. More sensors and processing power are driving this revolution, but one thing is for certain: these technologies will not grow and evolve using only traditionally rigid printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs). Flexible electronics are the answer.
Today’s smart devices are on the move, and they need sensors, memory, power, processing and communication that can move along with them. Flexible printed circuit boards can replace the rigid fixed box (whether it’s a cellphone, a heart rate monitor or an asset tag) that must go along with every product. This has made the printed electronics industry boom. One industry forecast predicts the flexible electronics market will grow from $31.7 billion in 2018 to $77.3 billion in 2029. While there are a lot of collaborative projects for trials and pilots to prove the business case, actual volumes are still low. But IDTECHEX estimates that the flexible electronics smart packaging segment alone will be worth $206 million in 2025.
The reason interest is so high is the boundless potential.
Think about one of the biggest issues today in football—concussions. A combination of flexible electronic sensors and processors can monitor pressures on the head and evaluate the results of even minor impacts. Now, consider the same wearable electronics evolving to protect soldiers in battle. In this example, the use cases expand beyond headgear into wearable sensors. This comprehensive connected health approach includes monitoring of hydration, fatigue, heart rate and acoustic exposure. And all of this happens while reducing the weight a soldier must carry in the form of traditional bulky electronics.
Research and development in flexible electronics will see the private and public sectors (e.g. aerospace) each feeding the other with new capabilities. While different in end-use goals, the function of these applications will often be the same. Experience-critical data can be collected, collated and processed from flexible printed circuit boards to serve mission-critical—and life-critical—needs.
The Right Formula for Deploying Flexible Electronics
New thinking is required to develop strategies to help manufacturers effectively transition to flexible electronics while speeding deployment, streamlining operations and protecting their existing capital investment. At one end, it’s necessary to evaluate the ideation of how to make a product that is thin, flexible, compliant and conformal, but then focuses it through the lens of sourcing, integrating and delivering flexible electronic components that can meet those specifications.
In the near-term, the most effective model in many cases will be a hybrid one, where an ecosystem of flexible and traditional electronic components works together in a complete platform. The industry seems to agree, as hybrid platforms have been identified as a key trend.
To maintain competitiveness, organizations also need to evaluate the performance of new materials going into flexible electronics. Currently, electronics might have to be separately integrated onto a flexible material, but everyone should be paying attention to printed electronics made possible by an additive process.
Printed electronics technology is enabling conductive materials such as copper and silver to be printed directly into flexible circuits on a wide variety of materials such as plastic, polyurethane, textile, paper and glass. Current industrialized capabilities include the ability to print sensors such as strain measurement devices (SMBs) and membrane switches in the control panels of common appliances in high volumes, but it may be possible to print more advanced components such as capacitors, transistors, antennae and batteries in the near future. And all can be printed on the same substrates along with traditional electronics.
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Flexible Electronics Applications are Almost Endless
As flexible electronics continue to refine their performance, there is a wide range of new applications on the horizon. We expect the self-perpetuating development continuum to inspire ideas from big to small. Consider a fluid-level sensor on the inside of a bottle of laundry detergent. This cost-effective sensor strip can be printed and attached to the bottle and linked to an auto-replenishment system to reorder detergent without the customer lifting a finger. And once developed, this sensor can go on to do much bigger things. As an example, it could be evolved into a fleet of sensors monitoring fluid containers on an off-shore oil rig, where new deliveries can be ordered automatically when supplies are low.
This development continuum can also easily include the transportation sector. Weight and space can be saved on next-generation aircraft by replacing wiring harnesses with durable strips that can mold to fuselages and bend easily around angles. Once developed, the automotive industry can benefit by replacing bulky wiring harnesses with integrated processing power to sense, energize, illuminate and establish communication in the first generation of autonomous vehicles.
What we’ve seen as this field progresses are different vendors in the flexible electronics continuum that are pushing their own technology in vertical silos. But industry established leaders, as well as new and upcoming startups, are looking for a comprehensive approach to obtain a more market-ready but disruptive product. That’s why Jabil’s enterprise strategic capability teams across the globe and commercial divisions are working to be a conduit for providers to increase the marketability and scalability of their offerings, and for manufacturers to gain a complete package that realizes the full scope of benefits that flexible electronics has to offer.
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