Can electronics be additively manufactured and flexible without compromising on the capabilities of conventionally produced integrated circuits (ICs)? Often described as ‘print what you can, place what you can’t’, flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) offers an enticing blend of capabilities, enabling rapid prototyping, flexibility/stretchability, and roll-to-roll manufacturing of circuits with conventional ICs. Furthermore, this manufacturing methodology is moving out of research labs and into commercial production, with new and existing contract manufacturers now offering FHE.
Manufacturing FHE circuits requires many current and developing emerging technologies that are essential to circuits. These include:
- Low-cost thermally stabilized PET substrates that are dimensionally stable.
- Component attachment materials compatible with flexible thermally fragile substrates, such as low-temperature solder and field-aligned anisotropic conductive adhesives.
- Flexible integrated circuits based on both thinned Si and metal oxides.
- Conductive inks based on both silver and copper.
- Thin film batteries, especially if printable.
- Printed sensors of all types.
- Manufacturing methods for mounting components on flexible substrates.
Inputs, assembly, and applications for FHE circuits. Source: IDTechEx
The IDTechEx report assesses the status and prospects of each technology in detail, with recent developments and technological gaps highlighted and the merits of different approaches compared. This analysis is based on interviews with many suppliers and annual attendance at multiple printed/flexible electronics conferences. Furthermore, we profile 6 government research centers and a range of collaborative projects from around the world that support the adoption of flexible hybrid electronics, demonstrating the major players and technological themes.
Assessing Application Opportunities
With so many potential addressable markets, establishing where FHE offers the most compelling value proposition relative to alternative electronics manufacturing approaches is essential. As a manufacturing methodology rather than a specific product, the benefits of using FHE are highly dependent on the application.
Flexibility and stretchability, of course, also form part of FHE’s value proposition. While conventionally manufactured flexible PCBs already meet some application requirements, such as for making electrical connections in confined spaces, the resilience of many printed conductive inks to repeated bending and tighter curvatures offers a clear differentiator. FHE is thus well suited for wearable applications such as electronic skin patches and applications where conformality is enabled by stretchability, such as integrated lighting.
Upcoming Free-to-Attend Webinar
Flexible Hybrid Electronics: The Best of Both Worlds?
This webinar will discuss the following topics:
- An introduction to FHE, including motivating factors
- Discussion of recent innovations and commercial developments within FHE
- Identification of technological gaps and potential solutions
- A roadmap for how the industry will develop, spanning both technologies and applications