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NextFlex helps to build flexible electronics infrastructure, workforce

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

For Malcolm Thompson, leading a consortium is a lot like being a matchmaker. He is discreet and has a wide network. He also strives to understand his members’ goals and gain their trust. “They come to me and say, ‘We need help on some things,’ which can reveal a weakness,” said Thompson, executive director of NextFlex, a consortium in the flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) industry. “And we keep it completely to ourselves.”

NextFlex was formed in 2015 under a five-year agreement between the FlexTech Alliance, a research and trade group, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Its mission is to facilitate innovation in FHE—an emerging technology—and foster domestic manufacturing of them, including workforce development.

Students from Branham High School in San Jose, Calif., learn how products are made at a visit to the Jabil Blue Sky Center, which houses some of the world’s cutting-edge technologies.

Flexible hybrid electronics integrate thin silicon electronic devices, sensing elements, communications and power on non-traditional, flexible substrates.

NextFlex signed its second multi-year agreement with the DoD in 2020, a contract worth $154 million over seven years.

“Flexible hybrid electronics are enabling a disruption in the way we currently manufacture and package electronics,” Thompson said. “New paradigms for until-now impossible form factors which are thin and flexible, are at lower cost points, use all-digital process flows, are lighter weight, and have robust reliability, are all benefits of this new technology.

“The U.S. is known for innovation, and flexible hybrid electronics perfectly fit the profile of what we’re best at—innovating.”

In 2016, one year after the institute was established, it added a Technology Hub adjacent to the NextFlex offices.

The technology hub is a 10,000-square-foot, pilot-scale manufacturing facility for printing, assembly, programming and reliability testing of FHE that includes lab space and a clean room. It is compliant with International Traffic in Arms Regulations and approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for manufacturing medical devices.

While based in San Jose, Calif., NextFlex has two geographic nodes, one in New York and one in Massachusetts.

Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex

While there is a concentration of members in each of these geographic regions, it’s the diversity of complementary capabilities that make these regions unique.

In addition, each region has a specific mix of interests that creates a greater impact, including leading FHE companies, world-class universities, and strong economic development programs that invest in job creation through technology development.

Members currently number more than 100 and include companies, laboratories and non-profits, universities and municipalities.

Members have input on technology roadmaps and then can compete for project grants for related projects of up to $1 million, with companies contributing an equal amount. The typical award, however, is in the $250,000 to $500,000 range.

One of its members, Xerox PARC, received funding from NextFlex to develop an FHE biosensor platform that can be attached to a mouthguard for continuous, remote monitoring of biomarkers in saliva.

“We’ve been involved with NextFlex since its inception or prior and we know them well,” said Dave Schwartz, research director of cleantech for the Xerox division. “We’ve been working on flexible electronics a very long time, so there’s a lot of synergy there. They’ve done a lot to advance FHE manufacturing, so that helps us a lot.”

Schwartz said he’s spoken at NextFlex events and has gone to its workshops, conferences and roadmapping activities.

For the saliva platform, “the first market is for performance monitoring for athletes in sports where wearing a mouthguard is common,” Schwartz said.

The platform assesses lactate, which research has shown correlates with fitness and fatigue.

It can help coaches, for example, determine a fitness regimen and when to give someone a rest during training or play.

Eventually, the platform may be used for medical applications. “There are many different types of conditions that can be diagnosed with something like this,” Schwartz said.

While helping members like Xerox PARC develop FHE to be production-ready is part of NextFlex’s mission, so is workforce development.

The institute does that partly through its members who are in education in six states: Alabama, California, Louisiana, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.

Engaging the unengaged in STEM

One of those members, Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio, has been so successful with NextFlex’s Learn & Earn program that LCCC is working with federal grant money to extend the program throughout the state.

In the learn-and-earn setup, students in the college’s program for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), which are like FHE, attend school two days a week and work three days at local companies.

Kelly Zelesnik, dean of engineering, business and IT at Lorain County Community College
The program, which started in 2013, is so successful that virtually all enrollees complete it, and all the graduates are working in their field, said Kelly Zelesnik, dean of engineering, business and information technology.

Since 2018, LCCC has run FlexFactor, the institute’s educational program for middle and high school students. Lorain County FlexFactor has involved 1,700 students to date, said Deanna Strauss Hersko, manager of career technical pathways and programs.

FlexFactor uses design thinking and problem-solving to encourage students to develop a product concept using FHE technology. The program concludes with students pitching to a panel of experts. FlexFactor also exposes students to smart manufacturing careers through industry engagement, tours and connections with campus faculty.

“Students who would more likely not opt in are actually participating and see themselves working in manufacturing,” said Strauss Hersko. “FlexFactor really engages that unengaged learner in STEM pathways.”

In fact, 71 percent of students surveyed after their FlexFactor session felt they could be more successful in STEM and advanced manufacturing (AM) careers after their participation, according to results Strauss Hersko provided.

Also, 61 percent of students surveyed said they were more likely to pursue an educational pathway or career related to STEM, AM or business.

Zelesnik said her next big dream is to run FlexFactor for adults, especially women, military veterans and older, displaced workers. She thinks the program would have the same impact on them that it has on school-age children.

Holding LCCC back from offering more of  NextFlex’s educational sessions—or those from other Manufacturing USA institutes in which it’s a member—is lack of money to run the labor-intensive sessions.

“Connecting to the Manufacturing USA institutes requires some level of capacity and effort because we need to be engaged to be a good participant,” said Zelesnik. “But it’s so well worth it. Being at the table is really important.”

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