NextFlex replaced the traditional circuit board with a thin, flexible plastic sheet and used digital printing processes for circuit elements. Photo courtesy of NextFlex.

Creates First Flexible Arduino System Suited for Bringing New IoT/Sensor Products to Market

SAN JOSE, Calif.—NextFlex®, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Institute, recently announced that it has successfully proven the robustness of the FHE manufacturing process, producing multiple functional samples of a flexible Arduino® system.

As part of the Flexible Arduino Microcontroller Project, NextFlex redesigned a device, typically built on a rigid printed circuit board (PCB), by printing and attaching thin bare die on a flexible substrate while maintaining the performance associated with traditional packaged integrated circuits (ICs). The achievement ultimately helps realize FHE’s enormous potential for creating ubiquitous IoT and sensor products for consumer, commercial, and military applications, NextFlex said in a press release.

Arduino is an open-source, microcontroller-based electronics prototyping platform that offers versatile, easy-to-use hardware and software. As a result, Arduino has achieved a high degree of popularity with developers ranging from novices to seasoned experts because it is open source, with publicly available design files and bills of materials (BOMs), and low cost.

Up until now, however, Arduino products have been built with traditional packaged die microcontrollers, which deliver high performance and functionality, but have design limitations (fragility, rigidity, bulkiness) that complicate integration into newer sensor devices that may be flexible or curved in design.

NextFlex ( tackled this design challenge head on by developing a process flow for manufacturing a flexible Arduino that reduced the number of process steps by almost two thirds versus traditional electronics manufacturing processes.

NextFlex replaced the traditional circuit board with a thin, flexible plastic sheet and used digital printing processes for circuit elements. Die attach of a thin bare die eliminated traditional microcontroller packaging while further enabling flexibility of the product. The new process translates to anticipated savings in manufacturing time and cost, as well as a significant reduction in the end-product weight. The flexible Arduino is only a third of the weight of the rigid Arduino Mini board.

The NextFlex Arduino project’s sponsor is the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

“The possibilities for FHE technology are virtually limitless,” said Dr. Benjamin Leever, AFRL advanced development team leader and NextFlex government chief technology officer, in the press release. “Proving the manufacturability of this technology through an open-source platform will expand FHE’s reach even further by providing everyone from industrial product developers to high school students with the opportunity to innovate on new electronics concepts.”

NextFlex’s San Jose-based open-innovation Technology Hub proved valuable in allowing NextFlex to integrate all of the component steps to yield functioning samples. The Hub is the only single-source FHE processing production line in the U.S., and offers members access to state-of-the-art production equipment for proving new technology, developing new manufacturing processes, and testing new materials.

“We are pleased to have teamed with NextFlex on this project and look forward to the next steps in the optimization process,” Leever added. “This is truly a momentous achievement for the FHE community.”

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