Technology continues to evolve, and wearable electronics are the focal point for many new concepts. These next generation products for the consumer electronics industry creates a new market with nothing but upside for manufacturers and suppliers. One feature of wearable devices is the ability to attach electronic devices on the skin for long term health monitoring. Flexible circuits are the major wiring ingredient for these wearable devices; however, the base materials will dramatically change posing challenges for materials and manufacturing.
Polyimide films such as Du Pont’s Kapton and PET films are the predominant material for traditional flexible circuits. A more reliable circuit was needed for these new products, so manufacturers increased insulation resistance, heat resistance, dimensional stabilities, longer flexing endurance, and lower moisture absorption, higher chemical resistance against acid/alkaline/organic solvent and more. Film manufacturers continue to elevate their product performances to satisfy customer’s requirements, and flexible and stretchable wearable devices require a lot of change.
Circuit elasticity is another hurdle for film manufacturers. Medical devices attached to the skin require them to be elastic. Unfortunately, current polyimide films used for flexible circuits have almost no elasticity, and are not suitable to use as the base material in medical devices. Thin sheets of urethane rubber and silicone rubber could be alternatives, however, the traditional conductive material and circuit generation process such as copper foil and etching process cannot be applied to the rubber sheets because of its low flexibility and low shearing strength. Thick film conductors generated screen-printing process could be another solution, but several modifications to the ink materials and the upgraded printing processes is necessary.
Two more challenges with wearable devices are hygroscopy and gas permeability of the circuits. Traditional flexible circuits would not allow sweat to dissipate when using a wearable electronic product attached to the skin. Several ideas were floated including using a good quality, lightweight cotton, polyester and/or Lycra blends that draw moisture away from the body; unfortunately these materials are not suitable for building electronic circuits. Combinations of screen printing and cushion materials could help electronic circuits on the unstable and non-uniform substrates.
Circuit transparency and reliable connections that are heat resistance is required for several medical applications. Traditional polyimide films are dark brown or orange in color, and obviously can’t be used in transparent circuits. Several material manufacturers are developing heat resistant and transparent plastic films to use as the base material in these flexible circuits, and device manufacturers are considering the use of transparent conductive materials such as ITO and silver nano wire ink. Since the heat resistance is lacking, a technology that will guarantee a reliable connection is not available at this time.
Wearable devices are here to stay, and the next generation device will be even more advanced than current products. Along with this evolution comes a whole new demand in properties for materials. Wearable tech is a six billion dollar global market, and some analyst’s claim it could be a $34 Billion dollar market by 2020.
Dominique K. Numakura, email@example.com
DKN Research, www.dknresearch.com
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Headlines of the week
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