With that in mind, NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Institute was formed in 2015 by the Department of Defense (DoD) and FlexTech Alliance to advance manufacturing of FHE in the US. As part of its mission, NextFlex is issuing project awards for promising applications. The second batch of four projects was just announced, with $8.6 million worth of contracts issued.
University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Massachusetts Lowell, American Semiconductor, Inc., and Binghamton University were the key recipients of the awards.
“The focus of these projects is to advance the technology landscape,” Jason Marsh, NextFlex’s director of technology, said. “The US Department of Defense’s Technology and Readiness Levels scale from 1 to 10, where at Level 3 you’re still in the lab, Level 4 is the proof of concept, and the next stage is pilot production. At Level 7 you’re ready to scale up production and a 10, you can buy it in Walmart. The NextFlex charter is to move the levels from 4 to 7. To move manufacturing forward, this is the critical gap.”
“The amount of creativity and dedication to furthering the commercialization of FHE in these project proposals is exciting, as it shows that we have hit on a technology, application, and supply-chain target that resonates with many organizations, and has real potential for breathing new life into US manufacturing,” added Dr. Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex.
The UMass-Amherst project seeks to develop a a conformal, wearable human performance monitoring sensor platform that can monitor pulse oximetry, pulse/heart rate and temperature, with wireless reporting capability. The project looks to develop scalable roll-to-roll (R2R) and print processes for this platform.
“The University of Massachusetts Amherst project is an interesting one,” Marsh observed. “Working with partners E Ink, Si2 Technologies, Uniqarta, and United Technologies Research Center, this project will test bonding silicon chips to flexible substrates with a 30 micron bond pad pitch which is in line with current high performance production for rigid flip chip packaging. It is integrating a number of human monitoring sensors and if the project is effective, it will open the door to more off-the-shelf ICs being used in flexible devices at the die level.”
UMass-Lowell wil team with Raytheon project to develop scaled processes for dielectric substrates and conductive patterning. The goal is to advance the manufacturing of printed radio frequency (RF) electronics for wireless monitoring and communications.
“The University of Massachusetts Lowell project deals with tunable substrates, and could open a new space for array antennas that will enable much more powerful and reliable radio frequency communication at significantly reduced costs and weights with the added benefit of being flexible, rollable or even foldable,” Marsh reported. “The Department of Defense could be an early adopter.”
American Semiconductor, along with Boise State University, will develop flexible Smart-Tags, including a flexible antenna and a battery, that log and wirelessly transmit environmental data during transportation and storage. This is very important for materials such as pharmaceuticals, life science materials, food, industrial supplies and other perishables.
“American Semiconductor is working with Boise State University on pharmaceutical packaging, recording data wirelessly. It is managing the efficacy of those products,” Marsh said.
Binghamton University is partnering with General Electric, DuPont and Georgia Tech to develop an infrastructure for testing the physics of failure in wearable human health/performance monitoring devices. This project is of interest to the military, as off-the-shelf products such as wearables often cannot take the strain of military use.
“The project being worked on by Binghamton University and General Electric is an agency-sponsored project,” Marsh said. “The US Air Force Research Laboratory is using a variety of consumer devices that aren’t able to stand up to the rigors of military use. They want to analyze these failures, and to develop testing and tools to determine the cause of failure, both electrical and mechanical. The findings will be valuable to the consumer products industry as well as to the DoD. This is a great example of the DoD taking the lead on something that can help grow industry.”