Wall Street Journal
By DON CLARK
Sept. 3, 2016
SAN JOSE, Calif.—Silicon Valley is rethinking one of its least glamorous and most ubiquitous building blocks, the circuit board, in a bet that flexible, form-fitting alternatives could reshape electronics and spur more manufacturing in the U.S.
Backers envision ultrathin boards like skin patches that could analyze the sweat of soldiers and pilots, wrap around gas pipelines and act as leak detectors, or provide grids of flexible sensors able to detect stress on airplane wings.
Such possibilities—the focus of a new manufacturing consortium here backed by the U.S. Department of Defense and others—require materials and production techniques that differ from conventional circuit boards, made of stiff plastic.
In some cases, circuitry is imprinted on paper, plastic or other organic materials using processes akin to inkjet printing. The results, which can be as thin as temporary tattoos, can be tailored for extended contact with the skin or in large formats applied to walls or roofs.
The concept of applying printing techniques to electronics has been around for more than a decade. Raghu Das, chief executive of the research firm IDTechEx, said past efforts in the field largely have failed because they attempted to replace silicon chips, which remain less expensive and more powerful for many purposes.
Instead, researchers now are looking to replace the circuit boards on which chips are placed, using techniques they call flexible hybrid manufacturing. Techniques include wiring semiconductors together on flexible surfaces, creating products that are more versatile than existing circuit boards.
“All the other electronics out there is in a box,” said Malcolm Thompson, executive director of the San Jose institute known as NextFlex. “We are out of the box.”
Progress may not come quickly. Though suppliers of materials and manufacturing technology are pushing the concept aggressively, Mr. Das said flexible electronics has suffered from a dearth of inventors applying the techniques in new products.
Besides expanding where technology can go, companies and government officials hope the new approach can influence where it is built.
Most high-volume production of chips and other electronic devices long ago moved from Silicon Valley to China and other lower-cost locations. But manufacturing specialists like Jabil Circuit Inc. and Flextronics International Ltd. keep facilities in the U.S. to help customers design products and build prototypes.
Flexible hybrid manufacturing could offer more opportunities for such work, some industry executives say, as companies devise new gadgets that must be introduced quickly and evolve rapidly.
“We are very interested and curious about democratizing manufacturing,” said Janos Veres, program manager for novel and printed electronics at Palo Alto Research Center Inc., a unit of Xerox Corp. Flexible electronics, he said, “will open up a whole new raft of business models.”
Some executives hope U.S. companies develop proprietary know-how to make flexible circuitry, which could make it harder for foreign factories to produce the same products. “You don’t want to share it,” said Daniel Gamota, vice president of Jabil’s hardware innovation group.
Techniques derived from printing are widely used to embed tiny wires in places like car windshields, antennas, solar cells and radio-frequency identification tags. Computer displays also are being fabricated using plastic, including organic light-emitting diodes. IDTechEx predicts flexible electronics revenue including those displays will triple to $26.2 billion by 2020 from $8.6 billion this year.
One key development, Mr. Thompson said, has been techniques devised by companies such as American Semiconductor Inc. and Uniqarta Inc. to make thinner silicon wafers for chip production. In some cases, the resulting chips can be rolled up like a piece of paper.
The U.S. military’s interest stems partly from a desire to reduce the weight of gear soldiers must carry and to track their condition. Mr. Thompson said flexible sweat-monitoring sensors can detect chemicals that indicate fatigue on wearers on the battlefield or in cockpits.
Boeing Co. on Wednesday showed off flexible antennas that could be deployed on aircraft for radar and other applications. Other efforts are aimed at intelligence agents who need to keep information out of enemy hands. PARC engineers have worked under a Pentagon research program to print information on glass that could disintegrate into unreadable bits in response to a remote command.
NextFlex, whose funding includes $75 million from the Defense Department, is among several institutes the Obama administration has set up to encourage collaboration in manufacturing technology. The institute is installing tools to help experiment with production techniques and funding development projects at corporate and university labs.