Flexible Thinking: Achieving Continuous Flexible Circuit Innovation

Since their introduction, flexible circuits have continued a steady climb from relative obscurity to center stage in the world of electronic interconnections. Today, they are among the most popular choice for solving challenging electronic interconnection problems. Those who use this technology on a regular basis are familiar with the many reasons for the popularity of flex.

Flex circuits are thin and light; they can be bent, folded, or flexed. When challenged, they can offer superior electrical performance due in part to the different polymers used as substrates. In short, flex circuits provide highly reliable interconnection structures that make possible solutions, which cannot be achieved by any other method (at least not as easily).

With such an impressive list of benefits already available, it might seem as though flex circuit technology has already reached its limits. However, the basic principle of continuous improvement is that it does not rest. Improvement demands that we persist in our efforts to find ways to make flex circuit materials and processes still better.

President John F. Kennedy made famous the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things that are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” It is evident from the order of his statement that Shaw appreciated the importance of first asking “Why?”

For young children, “Why?” is a hallmark question as they try to comprehend the complex world about them.

But Shaw seems to have intuited that without that important and fundamental question, the equally important question “Why not?” has no place to start. “Why not?” sparks an inventive spirit. The innovator is often very familiar with the question “Why not?” and, in many cases, has made it a touchstone for their innovations by seeing the unseen before being manifested into reality.

Indeed, innovation is commonly a product of observation and “Why and why not?” questions. Such questions press the mind into action, which hopefully results in seeing (or dreaming of, as Shaw suggests) some missing piece or the boundaries of empty space that define the missing pieces. After these mind-opening questions, the other familiar questions of who, what, when, where, and how will be required to shape and mold a solution to the initiating question.

Thus, the first challenge that confronts the innovator is to see what is not there and to turn it from a vague, dreamy concept to physical reality. How does one approach such a challenge? Let’s take a short “mind walk” to try to uncover and illuminate the missing pieces that await their moment of discovery. For this exercise, let’s apply the idea to our venerable flex circuit technology and see what it might yield.

First, it is worth noting that once we become familiar with something—no matter what its nature—we become wedded to our perceptions of it. Technology is not immune. This is a trap that humans have been falling into for ages, though some have admonished us to avoid it. Shakespeare, for example, warned us in his play Antony and Cleopatra: “Make not your thoughts your prison.” Unfortunately, it is something we are all prone to do.

Turning back to our technology—flexible circuits—it is clearly a highly enabling technology with many facets of materials, design, manufacturing, testing, etc. While the interdependence and interplay between these elements must be considered (changing one thing will typically impact another), it should not be an initial constraint. Instead, one should be unafraid and even encouraged to wander off the beaten path. There will be some blind alleys when not staying on the main streets, but these alleys can sometimes yield unexpected treasures that—while not of value to the current effort—could be useful in unrelated efforts later on.

Another thing to avoid early on is any consideration of cost. It is often the case that a process or device is expensive at the outset, but the price will come down with experience and more participants. Always be mindful of the potential to have your thoughts imprison your dreams and actions.

Those points aside, let’s now quickly apply the “Why?” question to some aspects of flexible circuit technology to see what it yields. Spoiler alert: there will be no answers to follow, as those will be the reader’s responsibility. Thus, the following questions are presented for readers to ponder on their own and hopefully come up with some “Why not?” ideas of their own. Consider the following: Why do we use only certain materials? Why do we need holes? Why do we use coverlayers? Why do we need lamination? Why do we need solder? Finally, for a little bit of controversy, why do we even need flexible circuits? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers; they are merely questions that might help us all to break loose from our mental chains (escape our prisons, if you will) and think in new directions and dimensions.

Having opened this brief discussion and challenge with a quote from one of the world’s greatest thinkers, it seemed appropriate to end with a quote from another great mind, Supreme Court Justice and philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, who astutely observed the following: “Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.” It seems doubly fitting knowing that the act of stretching also helps one to stay flexible in both mind and body.

Joe Fjelstad is founder and CEO of Verdant Electronics and an international authority and innovator in the field of electronic interconnection and packaging technologies, with more than 150 patents issued or pending.

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2018

Flexible Thinking: Achieving Continuous Flexible Circuit Innovation

12-07-2018

Since their introduction, flexible circuits have continued a steady climb from relative obscurity to center stage in the world of electronic interconnections. Today, they are among the most popular choice for solving challenging electronic interconnection problems. Those who use this technology on a regular basis are familiar with the many reasons for the popularity of flex.

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Flexible Thinking Redux

07-02-2018

Flexible circuits are known by a few different names depending on one’s global location and language: flexible printed circuits, FPCs, flex circuits, flexi circuits, flexibles, bendables and a few others that are application-specific such as flexible heater circuits and controlled impedance cable constructions. While flex circuits are an original and foundational interconnection technology for electrical and electronic products (one of the first patents for electrical interconnections, issued at the turn of the last century, was arguably a flexible circuit), over the years there have been several forays into technological extensions of the basic idea.

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2017

Flexible Thinking: The Benefits of Employing a Standard Grid Pitch in Design

03-31-2017

The industry at large needed to jump on the learning curve and overcome its fear of the unknown. One of the most vexing concerns at the time (an arguably still today) is that terminations beneath the area array package were unseeable. Given the fact that then, as today, solder joints were a major cause of failure, there was much consternation over the quality of the joints.

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2016

Flexible Thinking: Process Engineering—PCB Manufacturing’s ‘Delta Force’

05-11-2016

Process engineers serve a vital function on the front line of printed circuit manufacturing. They are often, if you will, the “Delta Force” that subdues and controls that which is one of the mortal enemies of manufacturing…process variation.

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2015

3D Printing in Electronics - A Perspective

01-14-2015

Knowing the value of a product or technology is key to making the right decision. Appreciating the value of an element of business is evermore important as the rate of change surrounding an industry accelerates. This brings us to one of the current buzz subjects in our industry: 3D printing. Understanding what it is and what its value is to a company and that company's ability to improve its place in the industry is vital.

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2013

The E.I. Files: The Electronics Industry's Black Swans

07-31-2013

First proposed in 2007, there is a potential electronics industry "black swan" technology quietly being developed and refined. It is one that could greatly and positively impact, at once, the cost, reliability, and environmental friendliness of electronic manufacturing by simply eliminating the soldering process.

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Flex Circuits and Photonics: A Pairing for the Future, and the Here and Now

04-17-2013

Photons are making continuous headway into the world of electronics. One thing that the basic data carriers (electrons, microwaves and photons) have in common is that flexible circuits are being increasingly looked to for help in managing their data transmission function.

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2012

Stretching the Limits of Flex

11-29-2012

Those steeped in flexible circuit design and manufacture for any length of time fully appreciate the long list of benefits that only flexible circuits can offer. Some of the most fundamental benefits of flex circuit technology have been exploited since the earliest days of the technology. Joe Fjelstad explains.

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Flexible Thinking: Circuit Flexibility (and How to Achieve it)

10-04-2012

The most common interpretation of the word flexible, as applied to the flex circuits that the industry currently makes, is something capable of being bent repeatedly without breaking. Joe Fjelstad discusses a few other definitions of flexible that are worthy of consideration when using the term, for their ability to unlock new thinking patterns relative to what is flexible.

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Technology Roadmaps: Thoughts and Observations

09-26-2012

If one is without a sense of the direction their technology is headed, odds are that they will sooner find themselves on the road to ruin than the road to success. A technology roadmap is a critical tool in helping a company make informed decisions. By Joe Fjelstad.

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2011

Something Old, Something New: Stretchable Circuits and Elastronics

10-13-2011

The stretching of circuits to alternately increase and decrease the length of a circuit has proven useful for electronic products and assemblies for years. Stretchable circuit technology and elastronics are poised to take on challenges that cannot be easily met by flexible circuit technology alone. Keep them in mind next time you find yourself in need of a little more "spring" in your design. By Joe Fjelstad.

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Stretchable Circuits: The Emergence of "Elastronics"

07-14-2011

The stretchable circuit is an interesting and promising new branch on the flexible circuit tree. The stretching of circuits to alternately increase and decrease the length of a circuit has proven useful for many years. The European Union has funded research in this area through such initiatives as the STELLA project.

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2010

Flexible Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Rigid-Flex Assembly

11-18-2010

The fundamental approach to manufacturing rigid-flex has remained constant for the 40-plus years of rigid-flex history. But is there a better way? What if one could produce a circuit that was rigid throughout the manufacturing process and only become flexible in the final step? In other words, what if one could make a rigid circuit assembly, flex?

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Reasons Why The Flex Market Continues to Shine

10-07-2010

According to IPC market statistics, flexible circuits continue to be the brightest sector of the overall printed circuit market. The reasons for this are many but, at the end of the day, it generally boils down to the fact that flexible circuits are an excellent way to solve interconnection challenges in a cost-effective way.

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Flexible Thinking: Flexible Structures for Data Transmission

08-12-2010

Flexible circuit cables offer some significant advantages for facilitating the movement of data between elements of a system that must also be moved or flexed. However, there is a balancing act involved and there is more than one master to be served to create a system that is robust, reliable and easily manufacturable.

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Flexible Thinking: Supporting Components on Flex Circuit Assemblies

07-21-2010

With proper planning, stiffeners can be designed to aid assembly through the designed manufacture of a flex circuit that can be handled as if it were a rigid circuit board. Such constructions can be accomplished by using any one of several methods.

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A Simple Approach to Flex Manufacture, Assembly

04-29-2010

Flexibility, the single attribute that makes flex so attractive, also makes flex circuits more difficult to build. What if we could produce a circuit that was rigid throughout the entire manufacturing process and only become flexible in the final step?

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