Matching Value Propositions to Applications
At its core, FHE is an alternative approach to circuit manufacturing. As such, FHE circuits can, in principle, be used wherever comparatively simple PCBs are needed (i.e., not complex multilayer circuits). Of course, replacing an established incumbent technology requires a compelling advantage that is typically application-dependent – do not expect FHE circuits to displace the PCB in most consumer electronics anytime soon.
Relative to existing flexible PCBs, FHE offers 3 distinct value propositions: Additive digital manufacturing, conformality/stretchability, and compatibility with roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing. The key to successful commercialization is finding a product-market fit where one or more of these value propositions either justifies switching or to facilitate a new application that would not otherwise be possible.
Evaluating the value proposition of FHE across multiple applications with different manufacturing volumes. Source: IDTechEx
Additive Digital Manufacturing
Since conductive ink can be printed using digital methods such as inkjet or the emerging laser-induced forward transfer (LIFT), FHE enables additive digital manufacturing. FHE is thus well suited to prototyping and very high-mix low-volume (HMLV) manufacturing – it could also potentially be deployed to facilitate versioning and even ‘mass customization’, the latter of which is difficult to envisage without digital manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing is less wasteful than more established subtractive approaches and is thus especially advantageous when components and, hence, conductive traces are widely spaced. One such example is mounting LEDs on sheets for large area lighting, which can also be produced by R2R manufacturing.
Conformality/stretchability is a key value proposition of FHE. Whereas flexible PCBs often employ rigid islands for mounting packaged ICs and other rigid SMD components, FHE circuits can be more flexible since many components (e.g., sensors) can be printed. Furthermore, conductive inks that are either stretchable or can withstand bending enables a shorter bending radius and even stretchability.
The flexible (and potentially stretchable) form factor makes FHE ideally suited to wearable technology, including electronic skin patches and e-textiles since it improves wearer comfort relative to the current rigid boxes that contain conventional electronics. Challenges include washability and sustainability concerns relative to reusable rigid electronics mounted within a removable box.