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Flexible Hybrid Electronics – Opportunities and Challenges for 2023 and Beyond

Flexible Hybrid Electronics – Opportunities and Challenges for 2023 and Beyond

Flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) have generated considerable buzz within the product design community. And the attention is well warranted as the technology opens the door to smaller, integrated, and versatile innovations.

While it’s exciting to think about all the ambitious ways FHEs are shaping the future, product teams must also have a realistic understating of the technology and how to best leverage it today. In this article, we’ll cover the current opportunities and challenges of flexible hybrid electronics – from both design and manufacturing perspectives.

What are flexible hybrid electronics?

Flexible hybrid electronics offer the best of both worlds between traditional printed circuit boards (PCBs) and printed electronics. Starting with a flexible substrate, conductive ink is printed to create traces (the conductive wires that are the highways where electric currents travel). Rigid materials such as IC, sensors like thermistors or accelerometers, LED's, micro controllers, and coin cell batteries are attached to the flexible substrate, mounted, and bonded to the conductive traces and other printed electronics features such as resistors and antennas.

The combination of rigid and pliable components allows FHEs to maintain the high performance of traditional electronics while delivering a versatile, conformable form factor. The second point allows FHEs to go into products not always suitable for traditional PBC, including wearables, foldable displays, smart labels, implantable medical devices, and more.

Opportunities in Flexible Hybrid electronics

Let’s start with the fun stuff – the many design opportunities and positive consumer outcomes that FHEs can deliver.

  • Expanding applications – Engineers and product designers have an unprecedented opportunity to influence various industries by incorporating flexible electronic technologies into their designs. The possibilities and applications are virtually endless. Wearable medical devices that improve remote patient monitoring, reducing the burden and costs of in-patient medical care. Smart labels that enhance asset monitoring, supply chain management, and quality control of goods. Expanding the Internet of Things (IoT) by connecting just about any device.
  • Emerging markets – The FHE market has grown exponentially over the past few years – with no signs of slowing down. Consumers are becoming accustomed to a wide variety of personalized smart products. At the same time, material science and manufacturing processes are rapidly advancing, making flexible hybrid electronics easier and more cost-efficient to produce.
  • Innovation and research – The drive for innovation in this field is stronger than ever. Collaborations between academic institutions, research labs, and manufacturing companies are leading to breakthroughs that can solve real-world problems and meet consumer demand for innovative devices.
  • Environmental Sustainability – Printed electronics are made with an additive process to create circuitry, which uses significantly less material and fewer harsh chemicals compared to the traditional PCB processes. In addition, hybrid flexible electronics allow products to be thinner and lighter, enabling drones, automobiles, and scooters to be more efficient.

Challenges in Flexible Hybrid Electronics

As with any emerging technology, there are some obstacles and limitations that designers and engineers should be aware of when developing a product with FHEs.

  • Technological limitations – Despite rapid progress, flexible electronics are not yet powerful enough to completely replace PCBs. Design teams must understand their application's performance requirements and work toward reducing rigid components as much as reasonably possible. Some complexities include material longevity, resilience under high strain, energy consumption, and heat dissipation.
  • Manufacturing complexity – The hybrid nature of these devices introduces new manufacturing challenges. To create a mechanically sound connection, rigid components must be precisely placed on the flexible substrate. The designer must consider how and where the product will bend to avoid strain that can affect the bonding of points of the rigid components.
  • Regulatory, safety, and security considerations – Developing FHE devices in certain industries comes with an added layer of regulatory requirements. For example, medical devices typically need to use FDA-approved materials and processes. Furthermore, if the device comes in contact with skin, it introduces even more stringent safety requirements. Non-medical devices may need to adhere to CE, UL, or other compliance standards. Finally, the cloud connected products have data security issues that product teams may have not previously considered.
  • Manufacturing scalability – Many FHE devices are currently designed by start-ups or research laboratories. These teams are focused on proof of concept and developing a successful prototype – not necessarily on how the final product will be manufactured. This gap presents a significant barrier when it’s time to scale up production. By selecting materials and designing with manufacturing in mind, teams can get their product to market faster and more efficiently. 

Partner with Tapecon on Your Flexible Hybrid Electronics Project

Considering the massive opportunities and complex challenges, most product teams working with FHE will benefit from working with an experienced FHE manufacturing partner early in the process.

At Tapecon, we've been building printined electronics solutions for over three decades in various industries such as medical, industrial, and more. We don’t just see ourselves as a contract manufacturer – we consider ourselves a partner in your development and production. We provide design consulting with scaled manufacturability in mind to ensure a seamless transition from development to production.

A common question is, “When’s the right time to talk about manufacturing?” The simple answer is as early in the development process as possible. Typically, we recommend involving our team in manufacturing readiness (MRL) 3 or technology readiness level (TRL) 4.

With our new product introduction support, we offer value-add services such as material testing and prototypes built with scaled-down versions of final manufacturing techniques. Finally, when the product is approved and ready for production, we offer a full range of converting processes, along with sheet-to-sheet or roll-to-roll manufacturing based on your quantity requirements.

Let's make something great

With over 100 years of manufacturing experience, Tapecon works with product teams to solve challenges, create products, and enhance lives. Learn more about our flexible printed electronics applications.

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