Leveraging open-source tech to create flexible electronic systems

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) reports that it has developed the first-ever functional samples of flexible Arduino circuit board systems made by employing a flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing process. The AFRL led the project, with NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Institute, also on the team.

The research findings, say the AFRL team, set the stage for smart technologies used for the internet of things and sensor applications including wearable devices.

Arduinos are microcontrollers that are programmable through open-source software. Whereas commercial electronics typically include proprietary microcontrollers, anyone can prototype an electronic device using Arduinos. The form factor of electronic devices, say the AFRL team, is often limited by traditional microcontrollers, which are fragile and rigid in design, which complicates integration with newer devices that may be flexible or curved in design, such as a smartwatch, or located in a difficult-to-access place, like a fuel tank sensor. The flexible Arduino can help users make rapid innovations in flexible and wearable devices for military applications that could include monitoring hydration status, glucose levels, heart rate, and more.

While developing the flexible hybrid device, the NextFlex team reduced the number of manufacturing process steps by more than 60 percent and the weight of the circuit by 98 percent, which increases the possibilities for design applications. The shrinking of the steps was achieved by replacing the traditional circuit board with a thin, flexible plastic sheet, eliminating the traditional microcontroller packaging, and using digital printing processes for circuit elements. The team maintained the high performance level of a traditional microcontroller circuit through the combination of surface-mounted and printed features.