Keep flexible, then stay fashionably focused: The first rule of business is to be flexible to market demands. Some electronics companies are taking that literally, and producing flexible, hybrid electronics for a new generation of wearable products, writes Caroline Hayes

Analyst IDTechEx Research reports that today’s $100million annual wholesale revenue of electronics textiles will increase to nearly $5billion by 2027, as clothing and electronics companies make “significant investments” to enable mainstream, commercial products.

At the beginning of this year, WearTechDesign.com reported from CES in Las Vegas, that Xenoma’s e-skin smart shirt was bringing wearable electronic apparel to the sports and fitness market, as well as to healthcare and gaming. The e-skin smart shirt enables motion and gesture tracking and monitoring to either improve sporting performance or monitor respiration and other parameters.

Flexible PCB manufacturers are also developing stretchable boards, using either flexible connectors or ultra-thin materials to create stretchable electronics materials that allow for increased throughput and that operate at high temperatures.

Part of the support network for this is FlexTech, a Special Interest Group (SIG) of SEMI, since 2015. Its focus is on flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) equipment, materials and processes. Other R&D funding programmes within SEMI are NBMC (Nano-Bio Manufacturing Consortium) and NextFlex, for FHE manufacturing.

FlexTech describes FHE as the “building blocks for products which are flexible, lightweight, low power and contain sensors, power, communications capability and other system components”.

An example of electronics that conventionally does not flex, but which has been engineered to do so, are glass-free electrophoretic displays (EPDs). Start-up L!BER8 has incorporated EPDs designed and manufactured by Plastic Logic into its Tago Arc bracelet (pictured)

A smartphone app can re-customise the bracelet’s e-ink display to match accessories, outfits, or even the user’s mood, although the last option seems a little redundant: if the wearer is smiling, they are happy, if they are scowling, they’re not. In fairness, this is intended to be a fashion accessory, with no pretensions (or aspirations) to be anything else. Zoli Kovacs, CEO, L!BER8 said “The idea of the bracelet was not to be a tech gadget but to be a premium fashion accessory and Plastic Logic provided the high-quality display to help make this happen”. The German company offered guidance and support and Kovacs says: “The team really were as flexible as their displays”.

I couldn’t help thinking that one thing that would propel the wearable market is for it to be less frivolous. There is no mention of this bracelet being used for anything other than fashion, or an attention seeking accessory, as in: “Hey, why the blue, sad bracelet today?” Surely this could be used to help children who may not be able to express feelings, or for use in therapy.

The electronics is interesting though. The power needed to change the image on the bracelet is low and the glass-free displays sits end-to-end between the bracelet’s metal rims, so practically the entire surface will show the chosen pattern.

A fashion accessory is not an essential piece of wearable technology, but Plastic Logic has provided glass-free, flexible displays that have been integrated into electronic badges, sports accessories and has the ability to offer custom sizes for volume orders. This concept and the technology of flexible displays could be another building block for other products in other markets.

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