Imagine printed circuit boards manufactured to be flexible enough to bend and even fold. Welcome to the world of flexible (flex) circuits, which promises to completely change the way electronics devices are made and used.
Flex circuits are circuits screen printed on top of flexible substrates. They are likely to make an impact in a wide variety of areas, with products being developed for military, medical, agriculture, civil infrastructure, energy and consumer applications.
The design and application opportunities they offer are endless, from smartphones that you can wrap around your wrist to smart bandages which monitor vital signs. The use of flex circuits in medicine especially promises exciting developments, for example brain implants which could help paraplegics walk again.
Many years of research and innovations across printing, materials, manufacturing and microelectronics technologies are making flex circuits possible. The industry is still a fledgling one, but it is likely to grow rapidly as it offers opportunities for increased product flexibility, lower costs, and innovation.
However, some obstacles remain. The printing process is key to why this technology will be easy to manufacture and therefore mass produce; the idea is to make it as simple as how we print ink on newspapers, but the precision required for circuits is of a different order.
Another obstacle is the materials that will go into creating flex circuits, for example whether some are suitable for the manufacturing process involved. Materials under consideration include polymers, small carbon-based molecules, metals and even ceramics.
Flex circuits may seem a theoretical concept, and there are still challenges to overcome, but with academia, industry and governments investing serious time and money in this field, it’s certain to develop quickly in the very near future.