As an institute within the Manufacturing USA ecosystem, San Jose, Calif.-based NextFlex is comprised of pieces that fit seamlessly together, forming a roadmap to commercialize “technology-flexible” and additive hybrid electronics.
As with most puzzles, some people see only individual pieces at first. But Art Wall, director of fab operations for the NextFlex Technology Hub, is committed to sharing the entire vision for United States manufacturing.
“Often people know NextFlex for one aspect of what we do,” Wall explained. “They might know us for our workforce development initiatives. Some know us because we have a for-hire manufacturing and prototyping services organization. Others know us through membership and project calls. Only when you put it all together do you have the true impact of the ecosystem end goal. At the end of the day, we want to keep manufacturing in the U.S. If we don’t get the technologies to the level at which they can be mass produced in a manufacturing environment to create jobs and an economy in the U.S., then we’ve failed,” Wall asserted.
Flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) integrate thin silicon electronic devices, sensing elements, communications capabilities, and power on non-traditional, flexible substrates. Formed in 2015 through an agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), NextFlex is focused on creating and maturing the country’s FHE ecosystem.
In his role, Wall, who has been with NextFlex for five years, oversees a range of process tools used in developing and prototyping FHE. The tools in NextFlex’s pilot-scale manufacturing line, the Technology Hub, are available to members and for commercial use for printing, assembly and integration, and testing and measurement.
“The scope of FHE, or additive electronics, is growing rapidly. If you think about medical and wearable devices, we’re all interacting with those much more than just a few years ago,” Wall said. “Making devices more comfortable and more ubiquitous, with the ability to get more data about our own health outside of a doctor’s office, creates huge opportunities for the FHE market.”
Wall described NextFlex as completing the building block phase for FHE products, going beyond a demonstrator or prototype to a marketable finished device. “We’re now creating more than circuits, we’re creating systems,” he said. “Once you have this system, just like if you have a computer or a smartwatch, it’s cool looking but doesn’t do much without the software and firmware. Integrating that was an evolution, as was the design so products look like something on the shelf of an electronics store, not a laboratory. Now people’s eyes are really opened.”
Pradeep Lall is the MacFarlane Endowed Distinguished Professor and director at Auburn University, which is a founding member of NextFlex. “We were a part of the original proposal team, and I led the Auburn University team that was part of the initial effort to establish the institute,” Lall said. Since 2015, the Auburn University team has led several project-call teams. The projects have examined various aspects of the development and maturation of additive-printed electronics to fabricate flexible hybrid electronics.
Lall said NextFlex fills a very important void in the path of technology progression. “In the distant past, corporate labs would take fundamental research and undertake additional research and development to enable the technologies for high-volume production. However, over the years, the corporate research labs have vanished, and there is a void in which fundamental research often does not have a pathway for adoption by the industry for mass production. It is in this void that NextFlex has created noticeable value. The institute focuses on high technology-readiness-level (TRL) programs to accelerate the technology for high-volume production in the U.S.,” Lall explained.
Someone who has experienced the benefits of NextFlex is Zach Kiehl, CEO of Fairborn, Ohio-based Sentinel, which is a spinoff of Aptima Inc., a human performance engineering company with a history of delivering intelligent systems that require military-grade quality and performance.
With $10 million in research and development contracts, Sentinel was founded in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab, U.S. Navy, Lockheed Martin, and NextFlex, and has developed its “safety-as-a-service” platform, SafeGuard. The goal was to solve the problem of monitoring workers in confined spaces to prevent accidents. Since its founding in 2020, Sentinel has expanded its health and safety platform to include wellness and physical performance.
Kiehl describes NextFlex as a link connecting early stage innovators with established technical and political leaders that have the resources and influence to scale. The time from early proof of concept to early commercialization is often referred to as “the valley of death.” Climbing out of the valley requires successful proofs of concept and a demonstration of the urgent need for a product.
“NextFlex truly serves as that network or hub of innovators to push forward state-of-the-art, U.S.-based manufacturing,” Kiehl said, adding that it’s hard to compete with foreign manufacturers when it comes to labor costs. “I think the world at large, and especially the U.S., became accustomed to overseas manufacturing. We lost a lot of capability and a lot of jobs, which naturally means we’ve also lost a lot of innovation and manufacturing proficiency. This situation makes it very challenging to bring novel hardware solutions or sensors to market without having an organization like NextFlex to help you get through that potential valley of death, as many traditional manufacturers won’t touch you unless you’re producing tens or hundreds of thousands of widgets at a time,” Kiehl explained.
In addition to helping develop some of Sentinel’s initial prototypes, Kiehl said many invaluable industry connections were made possible through NextFlex.
“Yes, NextFlex is a consortium and they have manufacturing facilities on site. They also have a vast network of mission-driven innovators looking to help early stage companies, as well as established companies, push innovation forward,” Kiehl said.
“NextFlex has done an astounding job bringing together a passionate and brilliant community to rally around an initiative that is both impactful and critical to our national security,” he continued. “I’ve lost track of how many great relationships we’ve made, whether it’s through the innovation arm of a large corporate partner, a government employee, or another startup or an academic or an investor. We’ve even taken on a few rock-star interns thanks to NextFlex’s workforce development initiatives.”
NextFlex hosted a workshop earlier this year to explore and align opportunities for hybrid-electronics technologies in new and emerging areas of semiconductor packaging. More than 100 subject matter experts from industry, academia, and government brainstormed and prioritized solutions to help shape the future of U.S. packaging capabilities. The solutions identified will inform potential NextFlex Project Call topics, as well as proposals for various opportunities that arise from the CHIPS and Science Act, which provides $280 billion in new funding to boost domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of talk about the CHIPS Act in the press, which is great, and we know that the focus is on big companies and big factories,” Wall said. “You can make all these semiconductor wafers in the U.S. you want, but if you can’t package them, you’ll still have to send them overseas to be processed and packaged.” This is where NextFlex comes in. “There are a lot of different ways you can package chips together to make a system, and we need to maintain leadership in additive electronics to keep it in the U.S.,” Wall said.
Kiehl agreed, noting he’s seeing progress in his own backyard. Intel Corp. recently announced plans to onshore thousands of jobs by building its most advanced semiconductor manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio.
“The capabilities that facility brings are just phenomenal,” Kiehl said, adding that community colleges and universities are launching tech-focused, smart manufacturing programs that facilitate diverse career paths. “I think we’re seeing signs that change is coming. Manufacturing isn’t a dirty word to many within the upcoming workforce, thanks in part to NextFlex and other defense manufacturing institutes. The next generation of electronics will produce interesting, important, and high-paying jobs right here in the U.S., where they should be. I am an optimist, and I do see some positive change coming down the pipeline,” Kiehl said.
“Before I joined NextFlex, I had never had the opportunity to work with the federal government or the military,” Wall said. “And that is very rewarding. Having a positive impact on the warfighter, where we can help protect the warfighter’s life, is rewarding and not something everyone gets to do.”
Application projects have yielded a wide range of prototypes for use in everything from wearables and health monitoring to aerospace and defense. A project dubbed “Superman” (for the product’s S-shaped electronic interface printed on a uniform’s shirt), allows for the rapid configuration of multiple sensors that monitor both the surrounding environment and the warfighter.
In another safety-critical project, Air Force maintenance technicians will receive immediate feedback on potential issues when working in confined spaces using another sophisticated wearable device.
The widening skills gap in advanced manufacturing requires an expansion of the workforce, especially when it comes to operating next-generation factory systems. Accounting firm Deloitte estimates that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs could be left unfilled at a cost of $1 trillion by 2030 unless the U.S. steps up to the challenge.
NextFlex takes a hands-on approach to workforce development. “People talking about workforce development in a vacuum doesn’t do anything,” Wall said. “The challenges we have in front of us require us to get the word out to young people that careers in technology, manufacturing, and entrepreneurship are exciting. They’re the kinds of things that make you excited to go to work. When we get the opportunity to introduce young people to what we do, the products we help create, and the lives they impact, the lightbulb goes on pretty quickly,” Wall added.
NextFlex hosts students at its facility to expose them to potential careers in manufacturing. “We had about 40 high school students here the other day, and as we were touring the facility more than one raised their hand, and asked, “How do I get a job here? How can I get an internship here?’” Wall said.
NextFlex’s workforce development program has reached thousands of participants across the country, with programs in 13 states with community colleges and local companies who need talent. “We find out from companies what skills are needed and then we go back to the educational institutions to make sure their curriculum reflects what employers need. This is a connection that has to happen,” Wall declared.
Lall agreed. “Manufacturing was still in the U.S. when I was a young engineer. I am excited to see that hardware is the ‘in thing’ once again. The ability to build things brings a new sense of realism and relevance to the engineering discipline both in the classroom and industry. I look to the future with optimism, eager to see the innovations that may be possible through hands-on learning in a thriving U.S.-based manufacturing ecosystem.”
According to Lall, this learning, and teaching, pays dividends for all involved. “My biggest areas of pride are the projects’ impact on the maturation of manufacturing processes for high-volume production, the realization of technology demonstrators toward the end of the programs to show successes, and the sense of standing at the crossroads of science and societal good. I have a small collection of these technology demonstrators, which I often show with pride in the classroom when I am talking about additive printed electronics, flexible electronics, and careers in manufacturing.”
In May 2022, NextFlex commissioned a study to gain insight into the FHE manufacturing ecosystem and plans for commercialization. Input was obtained from member and non-member companies to create a representative view of the current state of FHE manufacturing.
While most respondents indicated a widespread market for FHE is three or more years away, Wall said it was encouraging to see 36% of the companies have 10 or more full-time equivalents (FTEs) devoted to FHE. “It is very promising and an important validation that we’re at the cusp of going live with real volume manufacturing in the U.S.”
The survey revealed barriers in enabling FHE growth, and an emphasis being placed on reliability, manufacturing, and the cost versus existing alternatives. These concerns are typical for evolving new technologies and must continue to be addressed to facilitate FHE adoption.
According to the study: “It is critical at this time to continue investment in infrastructure and the supply chain so that the USA can be a strong participant in the FHE opportunity instead of ceding leadership to typical countries in the electronics space.”
Wall sees NextFlex at the cusp of something big, bringing a lot more products to market that will have tangible, positive impacts on people. “We’re working with a small medical device startup that has a diagnostic device that could have a big impact on future pandemics. We’ve been working with them for several years to figure out how to manufacture at scale. A big milestone this year is working with one of our great members to transfer that process to a full-scale manufacturing company. That’s success. I want to look for more of those opportunities as we work with more clients.”
This is an example of what makes NextFlex such a dynamic environment to work, collaborate, and connect to move FHE manufacturing forward. It’s what keeps Wall energized about the work his team does every day.
“When I was interviewing for this job, I was told I would never be bored,” Wall recalled. “I think one of the coolest things is the huge variety of the things we get to see and do, from some crazy new widget, to igniting a spark in a future manufacturing leader, to partnering with a member company that needs help in developing a new part of their process. It’s that something new every day, or every hour, that makes it so rewarding.”
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