SAN JOSE, Calif. — Malcolm Thompson understands global techno-politics.
Back in the day, he led an effort to revive LCD display manufacturing in the U.S. These days most panels are made in Korea and China, but the U.S. did get a strategic piece of the pie.
Now Thompson is leading a very different effort to spur innovation in manufacturing flexible hybrid electronics, thin chips integrated on plastic substrates. It’s a very different kind of technology and business than displays and the new effort is likely to have very different results.
Thompson is executive director of the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics to be based here. Last week his group’s proposal offcially won a competition for about $165 million in funding over the next five years from a mix of sources including the U.S. Department of Defense and a group of companies, universities, research centers and the local government.
“The Air Force and Army wanted to identify challenges and develop manufacturing capabilities of flexible hybrid electronics — that’s what this is about,” said Thompson, a former chief technologist at Xeorx PARC and former chief executive of a string of startups.
Flexible hybrid electronics merges “three existing technologies that live in different worlds,” he said. “High resolution printing of electronic materials, making integrated circuits as thin as 25 microns and packaging them for use on plastic substrates sometimes with special adhesives,” he said,
The grant will fund the creation of a hub in San Jose where integrated processes will be refined by building various kinds of prototypes in small lots of a thousand units or so. The center will work with partners around the country on a wide variety of projects, aiming to spawn companies capable of large volume manufacturing.
Projects will start early next year. Asked about the applications, Thompson said “the mind boggles, there’s a smorgasbord.”
- Developing new printing materials
- Refining printing processes for electronic conductors and sensors
- Optimizing thinning of silicon chips in the most efficient way
- Designing flip chip and other interconnects
In addition, “we need to develop new modeling and design capabilities,” Thompson said. “There are no design tools for this technology yet, so we want to develop them, leveraging work done in design tools for silicon,” he added.
Products are expected to include active, stretchable patches such as sweat sensors that could measure hydration of athletes, soldiers and medical patients.
“We are very interested in monitoring body chemistry,” said Thompson. “Bio sensors could measure cognitive capabilities for pilots, even drone pilots who need high concentration on what they are doing…and sensors measuring liver disease or premature babies from whom you cannot draw much blood so stress sensors are critical,” he said.
“The military is interested in structural sensors on flexible circuits to monitor stresses on aircraft wings, and firemen need toxicity monitors like ammonia sensors worn on clothing,” he added.
Among other applications, flexible hybrid electronics could help create soft robots or prosthetics with a lifelike sense of touch. They could also be worn in shoes to measure someone’s gait.
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