2016FLEX Wrap-up: Trends in the Flexible Eco-System
By Heidi Hoffman, senior director, FlexTech
The opportunity to showcase innovation in the flexible electronics eco-system arrived February 29-March3 in the form of 2016FLEX – the conference, exhibition, short courses, and networking event organized by FlexTech, SEMI’s Strategic Association Partner. Advancements in materials, processing methods, market demands and expectations were presented, analyzed and discussed by an expert attendee base of integrators, scientists, academicians and business development professionals.
“2016FLEX met its goal of thoroughly exploring the innovation ecosystem of flexible electronics,” stated Michael Ciesinski, FlexTech’s president. “From defining key markets to explaining the manufacturing supply chain to identifying future R&D thrusts, 2016 FLEX was an unqualified success.”
Wearables and Stretchables
Integration methods for creating the next generation of wearables was a popular market application explored by several speakers. Murad Kurwa with Flex International (formerly known as Flextronics) presented the current state of integration methods and plans for stretchable and flexible wearable electronics. The company has created a database of over 80 configurations of substrates, inks, and lamination methods. They use this extensively when evaluating best known integration methods, however, Kurwa noted the database of test and reliability methods are still being created. Flex is pursuing solutions for new test vehicles process equipment and qualification methods. They also seek to collaborate with ink supplier to improve formulations to, for example, achieve stretchability above 2000 cycles at 20 percent strain.
Several speakers specifically addressed how consumer electronics and sports apparel companies are responding in the wearable electronics space. DuPont has entered the space with smart textiles and fabrics incorporating electronics. According to Lux Research, Google is partnering with Levi for smart textiles. Lux further noted that fitness tracking and heartrate monitoring devices are just the earliest use cases, and are already at the commodity stage. More can be done with better user interfaces (UIs) including haptics and gesture control.
Dr. Azar Alizadeh of GE Global Research explored the connection to healthcare and the trends in how hospitals will focus on acute care, while the home will focus on disease management, prevention, and wellness. Both are dependent on wearable health monitors, based on new flexible sensors. Over the next five years, improved and available sensors will reduce the cost and footprint of wearable devices, thereby enabling continuous monitoring.
There was a marked increase in the excitement around flexible displays. Jerry Kang, principal analyst, provided an in-depth review of mobile device makers, including Samsung Display and LG Display Group, on their plans for introducing fully-foldable mobile devices in 2016. He noted that flexible displays will provide significant differentiation for these high-end mobile phone vendors. IHS expects over 390 million AMOLEDs will be shipped in 2022, over 45 percent of total shipments, at a healthy premium for the capability.
The technology roadmap, as presented by Kang, for flexible displays reveals some interesting points for materials vendors. ITO touch screens will be replaced by silver nanowire technology, which will be followed closely by graphene-based solutions. Oxide TFT will replace low-temperature poly-silicon for the backplane in 2017. Display formation will move from the curved 2015 models to the foldable in 2016, rollable in 2017 and stretchable in 2019. This represents a very aggressive advancement in the form factor, and is based on the fundamental research work being done in materials by many companies and research institutions.
Manufacturing challenges include maintaining the cell gap at the fold and additional layers to replace the encapsulation methods in rigid substrates. In addition, manufacturers have begun using liquid polyimide and forming it into films during the panel production process. These new manufacturing methods are currently being developed for Gen 5.5 and Gen 6.0 AMOLED fab lines. Gen 6 will provide 87 percent of total flexible AMOLED capacity by area through Q4 2018, according to IHS.
Many companies and universities used the 2016FLEX platform to tout their capabilities in design, production, test, prototyping and other important services in technology development. Whether in the exhibition or from the stage, opportunities for great ideas to cross the chasm from R&D to manufacturing were highlighted. Taking center stage was NextFlex – America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Institute. Other R&D Centers and other industrial consortia driving FHE technology and applications are proliferating.
2016FLEX drew a strong international representation, including Canada (National Optics Institute and National Research Council), Finland (VTT Research Center), Germany (Fraunhofer Institute), India (Indian Institute of Technology), Netherlands (Holst Center), United Kingdom (Center for Process Innovation), and the US (Flexible Electronics and Display Center, MEMS Industry Group, NextFlex, SRI International).
FLEXI Awards and Student Poster Awards
FlexTech awarded its annual FLEXI Awards for Innovation, Research & Development, Leadership in Education, and, in a category new this year, Industry Leadership. The Innovation Award went to two companies, one in manufacturing and one in consumer products. The products were awarded for their outstanding design and ingenuity, with strong market adoption and significant revenue generation. The first FLEXI Award for Innovation was awarded to Sensor Films Inc. (SFI), for their Starlight Digital Manufacturing Platform, and Blue Spark Technologies won for their TempTraq® product, a wearable temperature monitoring patch, being widely used in hospitals and homes.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Lowell received the FLEXI Award for Research & Development for research conducted by Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI) on novel BST ink. This ferroelectric nano-ink for printing electrostatically-tunable dielectrics on plastic substrates allows for an all-printed high-frequency voltage variable capacitor for flexible, frequency-agile microwave applications such as phased array antennas and radar systems.
The Technology Leadership in Education Award was won by the National Science Foundation Center for High Rate NanoManufacturing at Northeastern University (CHN) for educating more than 130 students, half at the Ph.D. level, on directed assembly-based printing, synthesis of organic semiconductor, and polymers engineering. The CHN publishes extensively in industry journals, created tutorials and other programs to educate the general public.
The Industry Leadership Award recognizes and honors an individual who has shown particular dedication to building awareness of advanced flexible, hybrid and printed electronics, and demonstrates thought leadership in public forums, and through association activity. The winner was Daniel R. Gamota, Ph.D., vice president of Strategic Capabilities in the Engineering & Technology Services Organization at Jabil. The award recognizes Gamota's many hours devoted to the genesis of the industry through strategic roadmap development activities and standards work. In accepting the award, Gamota stated, “No one person could have much success without the cooperation of others in the emergence of a disruptive technology such as FHE. It has been a great pleasure in working with many of you in the advancement of the technology and the products they spawn.”
Also receiving awards during the evening were student poster contestants. First place was awarded to Yasmin Afsar, Levent Aygun and Can Wu from Princeton University for their work in Hybrid Electronic Systems. Second place was awarded to Francisco Suarez from North Carolina State University, for his work in Flexible Thermoelectric Device Using Bulk Materials. Third place was awarded to Talha Khan from Georgia Institute of Technology for his work on Solution-Processed Organic Photodetectors with High Detectivity.
The Flex Conference celebrated its 15th anniversary under the tagline “15 Years of FLEX” and its position as a focal point for companies, R&D organizations, and universities contributing to the adoption of flexible sensors, displays, power sources and other key components and systems. Analysts shared promising forecasts and analyses of expanding applications and markets, while customers and integrators shared wish lists for equipment, material and process suppliers. We look forward to 2017 and the exciting developments that another year of advancement will bring.
March 15, 2016