Flexible Thinking: Flexible Circuits—A Catalyst for Technological Evolution

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Change has always been a hallmark of electronics technology. The driver of change has been that the industry is continuously being pressed to develop newer and better products with more functions and at lower cost. There is likely a tendency to think that change is the result of consumer demand, but as Steve Jobs observed many years ago, the consumer doesn't necessarily always know what they want until they see it and can sense or experience the value. The truth is more likely that the pressure for change comes as much, if not more, from the product developer than from the customer.

Change is often sparked as the result of some dissatisfaction with the status quo that the product designer/developer sees as an opportunity to improve the product. There is an almost biological aspect to the growth and evolution of electronic products. There is also, of course, a rational force driving the development and introduction of every new electronic product, but at a certain point, electronic products seem to take on a life of their own. Thus, in product development and growth (i.e., change), there is a Darwinian-like quality to the process. Electronic products that adapt quickest and most readily to the winds of change thrive; those that don't are pushed back to wither and die. Adaptation is obviously a key to survival and synergistic (or symbiotic, if you wish) linking of adaptive technologies offers obvious beneficial potential and a prospective path to securing such benefit. It is not difficult to assume that it is often preceded and influenced by some moment of inspiration that drives evolution.

With only a wee bit of prejudice, I would argue that flexible circuits are among the most adaptive and adaptable of all electronic interconnection technologies, and perhaps the most catalytic as well. Their adaptability has long been (and increasingly) seen and tapped by product developers, including everyone from assemblers to packagers to solving packaging and interconnection problems and challenges. Over the last quarter century, the range of applications for flexible circuits has grown at an impressive rate as the technology has been adapted to a host of new interconnection opportunities. The historical roles of flex circuits—wire harness replacement, 3D interconnection enabler, and dynamic interconnection scheme to connect parts of an electronic assembly designed to move relative to one another—will not go away. Instead, we will likely see an ever-expanding array of applications.

There are a lot of reasons for this but in recent years, there has been a push by consortia to help nurture the awareness and growth of flexible circuit technology. Perhaps the most notable has been NextFlex, a public/private partnership with a stated mission to advance U.S. manufacturing of what they refer to variously as “flexible hybrid electronics” (FHE) and printed electronics (PE). The terms, it appears, were created to fundamentally rebrand the time-honored subset of flexible circuits called polymer thick film technology, as near as can be told.

What is more important is that the NextFlex effort has shone a light on flexible circuit technology, writ large, as they seek to promote public/private partnerships which facilitate flexible circuit technology innovation and commercialization. An important, publicly-stated aspect of their effort has been to “accelerate manufacturing workforce development and promote a sustainable ecosystem for advanced manufacturing,” which are vital to the continuing evolution, adaptation, and growth of the technology.

Inspiration, insight, or whatever else one wishes to call it, is vital in the execution of change. Over the last couple of decades, we have been watching the blurring of lines between what were formerly sharply divided and fundamental elements of every aspect of electronic manufacturing technology, especially in flexible circuit technology. The components, the substrates, and even assembly technologies are beginning to be used in a more coherent and cooperative way than ever before. One need only look at the recent advances in printed electronics to see the evidence of inspired evolution. The relative strengths of often very different technologies, all adaptive and adaptable, are enabling the electronics product industry to continue to get ever more value from our increasingly important and indispensable electronic devices. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, the only thing that will never change is change.

This column originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.


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