Below you can find some of the Frequently Asked Questions we receive at NextFlex. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, please feel free to contact us for more information.
NextFlex is one of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes established by the DoD Manufacturing Technology Program created to accelerate technology innovation and commercialization through pre-competitive partnerships. Our member network includes small, medium and large industry companies; academic institutions; and government partners. Through this community of technologists, educators, problem solvers and manufacturers, NextFlex collectively facilitates innovation, narrows the manufacturing workforce gap and promotes sustainable manufacturing ecosystems.
NextFlex and its members are focused on the manufacturability of flexible, conformal, thin, and stretchable smart devices and systems with an emphasis on solutions combining thinned silicon with a variety of substrates and utilizing additive processing as part of the design. The consortium focuses its funded development projects on application areas in medical wearables, structural health and asset monitoring, antenna arrays, flexible robotics and flexible power with over $100M invested since NextFlex’s start in August of 2015.
In addition, NextFlex also has its own pilot-scale manufacturing line in San Jose, California. Here, we fabricate fully integrated flexible hybrid electronic devices and systems utilizing advanced manufacturing processes and tools that transform flexible substrates, electrical materials, and thinned semiconductor devices into thin, lightweight electronics that can bend, flex, conform and stretch. Capabilities at the Technology Hub include design and prototyping, assembly, print, laser processing, design, simulation and print for RF and antennas, device programming and test and characterization. Our state-of-the-art class 10,000 clean room, equipment and manufacturing processes are FDA approved for medical devices and ITAR compliant.
A: NextFlex is a public-private collaborative consortium established by the US Department of Defense in 2015 with the mission to advance US manufacturing capability. Partially funded by the Department of Defense, our mission is to advance the manufacturability of flexible, conformal, and lightweight electronic systems and devices that are transforming healthcare, aerospace, automotive, structural health monitoring systems (and more) in both commercial and defense applications. In addition to advancing the technical art, this mission includes fostering the growth of the US workforce of tomorrow in preparation for new jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector as well as developing a sustainable US manufacturing ecosystem for flexible hybrid electronics (FHE). We were founded to innovate, support new US-based manufacturing jobs, and develop new US-based supply chains for electronics.
A: Yes, there are many examples of how NextFlex’s collaborative approach has been successful in the NextFlex community between companies, universities and government, ultimately exponentially advancing the burgeoning US FHE ecosystem as a whole. Examples of successful networking are most evident in more than 52 funded development projects that NextFlex has facilitated since its start in 2015 and that focus on early stage research sticking points common to the ecosystem. When solved, the projects can facilitate individualized growth and increased practical application and/or product creation. Networking is the most often cited top benefit of being a member, and all members agree to adhere to applicable antitrust laws, regulations and policies as part of their membership.
A: One of the goals for NextFlex-funded consortium development projects is to promote practical application. Therefore, members are provided an available path for obtaining a commercialization license for technology that was generated during those projects, subject to private negotiation between the particular developer and the prospective licensee. Outside of these consortium-led activities, NextFlex also operates a design and pilot-scale manufacturing line and is actively working with both government agency customers and commercial product developers. NextFlex is helping many commercial companies redesign existing products into thinner, more lightweight and conformable or flexible form factors and design new products based on innovative concepts for a variety of commercial customers. Technology developed in this individualized context, under commercial funding, is not available to the general NextFlex membership.
- Institute-funded Projects – Members collaborate on Institute-funded projects to advance flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing via a project call process; these projects are carried out both at member facilities and at the Technology Hub in San Jose, California.
- Technical Activities – Members assign technical employees to working groups that create and maintain the NextFlex technology roadmaps, conduct project calls, and monitor projects. All members have access to the roadmaps.
- Flexinars and Project Call Webinars – Members have access to regular webinars on a variety of topics including materials, new technologies, project advancement and more.
- Education/Workforce Development – Members participate in workforce development programs that provide skills development at high school and college levels that raise awareness of education and career pathways that lead to the Advanced Manufacturing sector.
- Intellectual Property (IP) Access – Members operate under a friendly IP policy designed to reward invention and speed commercialization.
- Hub Facility and Nodes – NextFlex’s flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing demonstration center – the Technology Hub – is located in San Jose, California and is available for commercial and government agency hire and is accessible on a priority basis to members. Partner nodes that provide unique access to tools, materials and subject matter experts are available in Massachusetts and New York.
- Institute Governance – Tier 1 and Tier 2 members (corporate and academic/non-profit) get a vote on the Technical Council. Tier 1 Corporate members get a voting seat on the Governing Council; Tier 2/3 Corporate and Tier 1/2 Academic/Non-Profit members share representation on the Governing Council. Decisions about priorities on Project Call topics and, ultimately, approval of project funding resides with these governing bodies.
- Networking, Information Sharing, Resources – NextFlex creates opportunities for members to share their capabilities and identify potential partners, exchange information, de-risk before investing, find new partners and/or customers, leverage the investment of others, and gain access to industry information and events at a discount.
Securing Intellectual Property
A: The NextFlex IP Policy establishes some baseline rules with respect to IP generated during a NextFlex-funded project. Every member that joins NextFlex signs on to the same IP policy in the Participation Agreement. The fundamental tenet of the policy is that ownership follows invention, meaning that if a member creates IP during a NextFlex-funded project, that member would have the right to keep ownership of it. However, because that IP was developed under a NextFlex project partially funded by the US Government, the US Government receives a Government Purpose license to that IP and most members of NextFlex (not a benefit for certain membership types) can have access to an internal evaluation and R&D license for that IP. Should a member wish to commercialize a product based on that IP, they must negotiate a license with the IP owner which the policy provides must be available to most NextFlex members and on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms. The IP Policy clarifies certain procedures and timing that must be followed and the applicable membership types.
A: No, NextFlex wouldn’t have any members if that were the case. The reality is that a large number of NextFlex members have vast IP portfolios, which they understandably and vigorously protect. The treatment of NextFlex-funded project IP is the thrust of the IP Policy which expressly permits the member-developer to retain ownership of its project-generated IP. Access to background IP is not required simply because of joining as a member; the limited situations when background IP is relevant occur when a member chooses to voluntarily contribute background IP to a discussion or project or in the context where background IP would necessarily block a member-licensee’s privately-negotiated commercial use of project IP; in this event, the blocking IP must also be addressed in such license in order to remove the block.
A: Members always retain ownership of their background IP. If a member wants to use its background IP in a NextFlex-funded project, the member would disclose the proposed usage and terms; for example, its project proposal and any resulting project development agreement would address any mutually agreed arrangement. If a developer chooses to contribute background IP as part of its cost share, such background IP is then treated the same as the project IP. In order to enable the internal evaluation and R&D license that members receive for NextFlex-funded project IP, any background IP that necessarily blocks usage of the project IP would need to be included in the project IP license to the extent necessary to remove the block.
Regarding other types of IP, if a member voluntarily contributes background IP to a NextFlex discussion, there is an internal copyright (not patent or external) license to facilitate such limited sharing of information and discussion within the NextFlex membership.
It is always the member’s choice whether to contribute its background IP.
NextFlex Funded Projects
A: Project Call topics are developed in a variety of ways, but most importantly, they are identified as part of the technology and roadmapping activities at NextFlex under the leadership of the Technical Working Groups. These groups, of which there are 10, have developed 3-5-year roadmaps that identify manufacturing and technology challenges facing the industry. These challenges, if addressed and resolved collectively, will speed manufacturability and commercialization of flexible hybrid electronics. Participation in roadmapping and funded Project Calls is one of the greatest benefits of being a member of NextFlex. As part of the development of the Project Calls, topic suggestions are also requested from all members. Once topics are identified, they are prioritized and voted upon in the NextFlex Technical Council. The topics are then approved by the NextFlex Governing Council for funding and released as a Project Call. NextFlex has issued five Project Calls to date and has funded 52 development projects with members. A Project Call announcement is sent widely out through media channels, through our public newsletter and, of course, to members.
A: The most organic way to be considered as a potential collaborator on a NextFlex-funded project is to become a part of the member community. As you learn about the capabilities and interests of other members, they will also learn about you. Participation in roadmapping activities is the best way to know about the topics that may be considered for a potential Project Call and is your best opportunity to work with others to define what your contribution to a project might be. Once a Project Call is announced, NextFlex hosts a “Proposers’ Day” and welcomes all that are interested to participate and seek common interest around the proposal topics. You do not need to be a NextFlex member to propose a project for a NextFlex Project Call, but you do need to become a member if your proposal is awarded.
A: There is no single formula for a successful project, but there are several trends related to the underlying objectives of the Institute – to develop an integrated US manufacturing ecosystem, advance FHE technology and manufacturing, and develop technologies for the DoD:
Form Strong Partnerships: Most successful projects are carried out by teams that include several project partners – having 5 or more participating organizations is not uncommon. These partners work cohesively.
Address Topic Objectives: Every solicited topic is intended to address challenges that are common across the ecosystem as identified in the FHE roadmaps. Projects that focus efforts on those common gaps and the reasons behind the topic selection are more likely to be successful. In some cases, DoD agencies have elected to partially or fully fund Project Call projects beyond the otherwise allocated DoD funds. In those cases, the specific agency objectives are identified in the Project Call to identify what a successful project should address.
Address Enablers: Projects should focus on pre-competitive technology enablers rather than product development; we hope that members will carry on from the funded efforts to productize the developments after the project. In some cases, the technology enablers may be a company’s “product,” in which case the IP implications should be considered ahead of time.
Communicate: In order for projects that are performed by a group of members to benefit the whole community, it is imperative that others can learn from the work that is done. Successful projects communicate their results through the quarterly (and final) reports and update webinars. These should describe the work that was done and decision processes that help the project elevate the community’s knowledge.
Engage: Finally, successful project teams engage with the NextFlex community through both project and non-project activities.
A: Yes, opportunities exist to move the Flexible Hybrid Electronics industry forward that are either outside the scope of traditional Project Call topics or are revolutionary ideas of which the NextFlex Technical Working Groups and community may not be aware. The Open Project Call has been established to respond to these opportunities through an RFI (Request for Ideas), to which proposers may submit a white paper. The Open Project Call seeks ideas for topics that are aligned with NextFlex Technical Working Groups but are not addressed by ongoing NextFlex programs or other published or planned solicitations. For more information visit the Open Project Call page at nextflex.us.
A: When NextFlex was established, the states of New York and Massachusetts both recognized economic development opportunities associated with supporting the Institute. Consequently, those states each pledged substantial cost share that they generally apply as match toward projects, though details of how they implement the state funding differs. The state funding increases the work that can be done within projects as well as the total value of the projects. It should be noted that many of the projects that receive NY and MA funding also involve project partners from outside those states.
A: Members work closely with the Engineering and Fab teams at NextFlex who are developing expertise around print, die integration and assembly, and test and characterization. Shared learning is a benefit of membership; however, an organization does not need to be a member to work with NextFlex on a commercial or agency development project. NextFlex is building its expertise in a variety of application areas including medical devices and wearables, asset and structural health monitoring systems, RF and communications, UAV/Satellite/Aerospace, and more. When an organization approaches NextFlex about a potential project, an NDA is signed between both parties and the project is scoped for further discussion to determine if both parties wish to move forward.
Workforce Development, Education and Training
NextFlex Learning Programs are a portfolio of programs designed to bridge the awareness, recruitment and skills gaps obstructing the development of talent in the advanced manufacturing labor market and FHE community. Through turnkey programs, NextFlex helps bring diverse players together to attract and develop local talent, all across the U.S.
- FlexFactor® – FlexFactor is an outreach program designed to engage K12 students with technology, entrepreneurship, and education and career pathways that lead to careers in the advanced manufacturing industry. The program is layered over an existing class and challenges small teams of students to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize an advanced hardware product, and build a business model around it. Core program elements include an industry tour, a college tour, and mentored workshops. At the end of the program, teams pitch their product ideas to a panel of mentors. The program can be delivered virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid format.
- Flex2Future – Flex2Future is a work-based learning program designed to allow colleges to integrate on-the-job training into advanced manufacturing pathways. Through the program, colleges and companies collaborate to place students in advanced manufacturing internships/apprenticeships/co-ops. Students in the program gain both foundational STEM material and applications-based learning essential to graduating prepared for the workforce. The result is a cohort of students with the professional, communication, knowledge foundation, and hands-on skills to be competitive hires in the Advanced Manufacturing sector.
- FlexPro – FlexPro is an education program designed for professionals in the advanced manufacturing sector. Through technology familiarization exercises and theory-based lectures, participants discover how flexible hybrid electronics can be integrated into product designs to reduce the size, weight, power requirements, and cost and increase the manufacturing efficiencies of next-generation products.
- Consulting – NextFlex conducts consulting and intermediary activities designed to bring diverse stakeholders together to achieve local workforce development goals.
A: All members and the high-tech community are invited to participate in the conversation about the impending high-skilled worker shortage facing the advanced manufacturing sector. Due to the aging of the incumbent workforce, from technicians to Ph.Ds., as well as the shifts in needs in high tech industries over time, our industry and our member community need to instill more interest and awareness in young people. NextFlex has developed a flagship program, FlexFactor®, that aims to raise awareness among middle- and high-schoolers that a dynamic, creative, and welcoming industry wants them to be skilled and ready in the future. FlexFactor updates misperceptions of modern manufacturing and seeks to help young people understand their own empowerment as they discover that they are the problem solvers of tomorrow. Getting involved starts with a conversation about your organization’s needs, your community college’s technology programs, or your university’s willingness to get involved. Learn more about NextFlex’s portfolio of Learning Programs at nextflex.us.