Silicon Valley Business Journal | August 8, 2019 – For decades, computers have been constrained by their circuit boards, the rigid little green rectangles that have dictated the size and shape of virtually every electronic gadget you’ve ever owned.
A 4-year-old experimental manufacturing institute in San Jose is pioneering a new type of flexible circuit board that could eventually replace rigid boards, and allow for radically different form factors for electronics — think baseballs that have sensors printed on the inside of the ball; bandages that have tiny, flexible sensors that connect to the Internet and monitor your health; or powerful satellite antennas that are printed on an airplane’s wing.
On Thursday, NextFlex hosted its annual Innovation Day, where nearly 50 companies exhibited prototypes of flexible hybrid electronics, many of which were printed onsite at NextFlex’s 15,000-square-foot cleanroom in North San Jose.
NextFlex launched in 2015 with a $75 million grant from the U.S. government to build out a manufacturing hub devoted exclusively to flexible hybrid electronics.
Today, the institute has 99 corporate and academic members who use its 40 or so machines to build and test small batches of flexible electronics prototypes. If the prototype works, NextFlex helps the organization find a large-scale manufacturer.
To date, NextFlex has worked on 47 government projects, 24 commercial projects, and 39 other NextFlex-funded projects. Its current challenge, which closes next week, is offering more than $10.5 million to organizations that can develop new hardware products that tackle specific manufacturing challenges.
“The exciting thing to me is to think about electronics differently,” said NextFlex Executive Director Malcolm Thompson. “For example, we have a security band that we’re developing for the Air Force — if a soldier abandons his vehicle, which has a computer in it, and walks away, no one else can open up that vehicle or computer, because that security band is locked. That’s a simple example in a military setting, but it could also become an antitheft device for your own car, because it’s basically a wearable.”
Similarly, the military is developing flexible sensors that can be woven into uniforms or placed on a soldier’s body, which could be repurposed to serve as health-monitoring devices inside hospitals, or worn by patients after they’ve been discharged.
Thompson predicts flexible electronics will be widely available within the next five years. To date, none of the dozens of projects the institute has worked on have hit store shelves.
NextFlex is unique among San Jose’s roughly 1,300 manufacturers, because it exists to showcase future technology, said Michael Erickson, the regional director for Manufacture: San Jose. His organization is an industry advocacy group that launched in the spring of last year to promote San Jose’s 800 or so small- to medium-sized manufacturers, and it occasionally partners with NextFlex on some initiatives, mostly around local workforce development.
“NextFlex is critical to fostering growth in flexible hybrid technology,” Erickson said. “These things aren’t just for wearables; it could be for anything. Back five, 10 years ago, a lot of sensors were confined to wherever there was space enough to have bricks connected. Now, you can almost run the entire body of a car with sensors, because they’re able to put them on flexible substrates. It changes how manufacturers are able to look at sensing power, distribution and structural issues — all of that can be discovered in ways that couldn’t be before.”
NextFlex’s initial grant expires in 2020, but the group is confident it can achieve its goal of turning the institute into an entirely self-sustaining public-private organization, based off revenue it gets from its members, and from projects it helps design, prototype and build, Thompson said. (It’s worth noting that companies pay NextFlex for prototyping work, whether their products are eventually commercialized or not.)
The institute employs 42 full-time employees and around two dozen summer interns.
In mid-October, Manufacture: San Jose will host Manufacturing Day, where 600 to 800 students will tour about a dozen manufacturing companies across the city, in hopes of sparking interest in manufacturing as a career.
NextFlex also runs its own workforce development program, FlexFactor, where it introduces students to flexible hybrid electronics and encourages them to develop their own applications of the technology. In early December, the institute hosted two competitions for South Bay high school students, who pitched product ideas that solve real-world problems.
In one of the competitions, students from Santa Teresa High School pitched an epilepsy-monitoring headband they called Flexilepsy.
“I thought working in a manufacturing career involved working in a cold, dark factory on an assembly line,” San Jose High School senior Alexandra Masegian said at the time. “The most impactful part of the FlexFactor program was the exposure to manufacturing careers. Before I got to tour Jabil’s Blue Sky Center, I thought manufacturing was boring. After I went to Jabil and we saw all the products they make, it really opened my eyes, and the eyes of all my classmates, to a career we hadn’t considered before but now most of us want to go into.”