Peel-and-stick simplicity isn’t just for adhesive bandages any more. IoT and flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) are bound to change hardware business models. And flexible displays will breathe life into any surface.
These were among the insights foreshadowing the future of the FHE, electronic textiles, IoT, MEMS and sensors industries at the FLEX Japan and MEMS & Sensors Forum Japan 2018. At the April event, organized by SEMI-FlexTech-MSIG, nearly 200 attendees shared their observations and lessons learned in the development of processes, products and applications. Presentations and discussions revealed these five takeaways.
1. Expect the unexpected with FHE development
Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) continues to shrink the size and weight of products, enabling new markets and concepts. “FHE takes printed electronics and adds ICs for getting performance out of the PE structure,” said Wilfried Bair of NextFlex, adding that “peel- and-stick electronic products are one example of unexpected new markets enabled by FHE capabilities.” One potential application is large peel-and-stick safety sensors adhered to buildings to warn of structural dangers.
Another surprising turn: With new insights into OLED technology originally developed for flexible displays, Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) has devised an innovative medical diagnostic tool for markets such as biomedical and agricultural monitoring. The tool features an atmosphere-processable OLED component with a simplified OLED structure encapsulated in aluminum foil.
2. IoT and FHE devices should change hardware business models
This is the standard business model for many new FHE products: develop a product, manufacture it, find customers and sell. FHE and IOT device developers were encouraged by Jam Kahn of Gemalto to consider flipping the script: During FHE product development, explore building an after-market revenue stream by controlling and mining the data for trends it reveals. Because of its data harvesting potential, IoT is an excellent emerging technology for this strategy.
The “Experience Economy” could create 200 connectable items per person, generating strong revenue streams from the collection and analysis of massive amounts of sensor-generated data. The key is for the data to be actionable. That means hardware suppliers must extend their focus to software development. “A recent study of California investors found that by 2025, 60 percent of global business profits will be from data,“ noted Harri Kopola of VTT, who advised hardware producers to examine business models that produce continuous value by leveraging software. “With FHE, we are creating the path to digitization for non-digital industries, and these industries need complete solutions,” he said.
Hardware provider Xenoma, for example, sells an electronic shirt with sensors for measuring muscle movements, heart rate and other health-related data. Xenoma’s Ichiro Amimori said the company offers its open-source software development kit for free under one condition: The developer must share the collection data with Xenoma. The idea is that the more data collected, the greater Xenoma’s ability to improve human health over the long term and achieve its long-term vision of alleviating disease.
3. Roll-to-roll and sheet-to-sheet manufacturing will meet in the middle
One of the big advantages of flexible and printed electronics was its promise to enable the manufacturing of electronics on a roll-to-roll (R2R) process in atmospheric (or close) conditions, like newspaper, rather than one sheet at a time, as with displays or wafers. But as development of inks and interconnects progressed, along with the placement of discrete and thinned-die components and basic flexible substrates on a moving web, most research and development (R&D) and limited-production runs moved to sheet-fed systems to control material costs for experiments and low-volume production. R&D on printing electronics processes split into two camps: the simple printed components camp on R2R, and the camp backing more flexible hybrid electronics development on a sheet-by-sheet basis. But progress didn’t stop.
Harri Kopola of VTT highlighted new R2R inspection and test capabilities in the VTT pilot line in Finland. R2R processing advances incorporate ideas from biology, chemistry, optics, optoelectronics, advanced inspection and test capability, illustrating the multidisciplinary nature of FHE. While accurate, high-speed, pick and place of thinned, bare die remains the domain of sheet-to-sheet manufacturing, look for more improvements in accuracy and speed.
Another new manufacturing concept that turns business models on their heads – “minimal fabs” – focuses on creating limited-run equipment and processes that use 3D printing and do not require cleanrooms. With a relatively low cost of entry, the approach enables electronics to be produced affordably anywhere.
4. Powering the IoT is a grand challenge
The requirement for edge devices to function without intervention for long periods raises hard questions about how to power the devices. Using organic photovoltaics (OPV) in textiles to harvest energy from light could be one solution, according to Kasimaesttro Sugino of the Suminoe Textile Technical Center.
ULVAC’s answer to the IoT power issue are requirements for edge device micro-batteries to be environmentally benign, safe, flexible and compatible with semiconductor processing less than .1 mm in height. The micro-batteries must also feature a long life and support continuous power output, high power density, low self-discharge (over 10 years) and mass production, said Shunsuke Sasaki of ULVAC. The batteries are being built on silicon, glass and stainless steel with dry, thin-film vacuum processing.
5. Flexible displays bring any surface to life
With their durability, flexibility, low-cost processing and programmability, flexible displays can transform any surface into a content-rich display with messages that make lives healthier, simpler and safer.
One example is FlexEnable’s organic thin-film transistor (OTFT), a device made possible not only by recent advances such as the ability to build organic material transistors on plastic and the increasing clarity of new film materials but by continuous manufacturing process improvements. These advances are improving switching times and the color and video capabilities of thin-film transistors while retaining their flexibility, low power consumption and communication capabilities. Simon Jone of FlexEnable gave the examples of wrapping a display around the blind spots of automobiles or replacing side-view mirrors with interior monitors showing feeds from an external camera, approaches that would improve safety while reducing wind drag and increasing fuel efficiency.
E Ink’s reflective technology and flexible products are coming to market with a wider color spectrum. The company’s Michael McCreary said its designers are specifying the panels for innovative projects such as the exterior walls of the San Diego International Airport parking garage. Used to communicate with airport visitors, the installation is weather-proof, programmable and self-powered.