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Cath Rogan

Expert Opinion

2nd December 2013, Eindhoven

Flex Stretch Electronics Conference Review

Cath Rogan reports from Eindhoven

When I mentioned I was going to an event called Stretch-Flex, there were a few raised eyebrows among those who know me but had never imagined me at a yoga retreat.  Indeed, walking through Eindhoven’s impressive High Tech Campus en-route to the Holst Centre on a quiet, clear November morning, the setting would have been quite appropriate had that been the case.  The Flex-Stretch conference and workshop, however, were definitely not for those seeking a Zen state of calm.  Instead a blistering pace of presentations, hands on demonstrations and poster displays was designed to stretch the grey matter and flex the jaw muscles of the delegates and it did so very successfully.

This was the fourth biennial conference, originally formed as part of the activities of the FP7 STELLA (Stretchable Electronics for Large Area Applications) project, which evolved as that project completed and successor projects took on further developments in the field.  This year’s conference was organised by three current FP7 project groups:

  • PLACE-IT (Platform for Large Area Conformable Electronics by Integration)
  • I-Tex (Intelligent And Luminous Textiles)
  • PASTA (Platform for Advanced Smart textile Applications)

As much of the projects are focused on the integration of flexible electronics and textiles, this year’s conference was itself heavily textile focused, although the attendance remained predominantly from the electronics community.  The organisers are considering a name change to reflect the emergence of the textile elements in this area however; perhaps “Stretch, Flex & Tex” may now be more appropriate.

Imec health patch.

The three main FP7 project teams were each represented at the workshop, where they went through the main aims and outcomes of the projects to date before the participants split into smaller groups to spend the afternoon getting close-up and hands on with some of the main technology demonstrators.   It struck me during the workshop and subsequent conference presentations that these FP7 projects were very commercially driven. 

Working with existing production equipment

I recall hearing several times over the course of the conference that the teams were challenged to work with existing production equipment and processes as much as possible, which meant that many of the new methods and applications we saw could achieve a relatively rapid and hopefully successful transition to commercialisation.  Others, of course would take new machinery, skills and supply chain amendments to cross that bridge, but the groundwork was clearly laid with the transition to industrial production methods in mind.

This was a theme strongly encouraged by Andreas Lymberis, Research Program Officer for the European Commission who gave the opening keynote presentation. In it, he outlined the opportunities for new R&D as part of the Commission’s upcoming Horizon 2020 launch in December 2013.  Recognising that many EU funded projects have not met the challenges of translating research into real world products, there will be new regulatory requirements for industrial participation in these new projects along with a specific drive to engage more with high growth SMEs.

With a number of significant policy changes including simplified and improved reimbursement tools and the ability for SME’s to participate without the need for a consortium, the Commission hopes to significantly improve the success of prototype and early commercialisation steps, which have historically been the weak link in the EU research chain. 

Holst hight tech campus.

FP7 Projects

There were so many FP7 project participants represented at the workshop and conference (and some with posters too) as well as some crossover of participants in more than one project, so the boundaries became a little blurred as I tried to differentiate between them all.  It mattered very little in the end, however, as it simply meant that there were lots of people available to answer questions.

With so much of the FP7 work to show and tell, and so many project partners on the agenda, there was inevitably a significant amount of repetition among the first day’s presentations, but this was to be expected.  What I hadn’t expected was that so many of the presenters had simply not prepared for the timed slots they were given – and it showed.  The conference had fortunately been arranged around extended networking breaks, but the over-runs ate into much of that time.  When the topics are absorbing and the presenters clearly so passionate about their work, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it did add to the frenetic sense of the already quite technical and detailed presentations. 

We rattled through reviews of progress in PLACEit with demos of flexible phototherapy blankets and automotive interior lighting, and PASTA (flexible interconnects and microelectronic components integrated into yarns).  Frankly, I haven’t space to do these very impressive pieces of work justice here, so I suggest you check out the relevant project websites (listed below) and see for yourself.  The Holst Centre’s own website also has a great overview (and YouTube video) of several of the PLACEit product demonstrators along with further information on some of the additional conference topics which you can find here http://www.holstcentre.com/NewsPress/NewsList/StretchableOLED.aspx

LEDs and OLEDs

As is often the case in E-textiles, LEDs (and in some cases, OLEDS) were to be found in many of the applications and methods discussed.  Perhaps this is unsurprising as the uses for lighting in conformable textiles are so diverse.  We saw them used in healthcare applications (light therapies from the Philips teams), automotive head-linings (the cost, complexity and weight saving potential for these LED alternatives being major drivers for this sector) and as eco and energy efficient replacements for domestic or commercial lighting applications.

The issues of integrating lighting into textiles actually cover pretty much all of the key problems of combining electronics and textiles and in effect, they form a handy proving ground for critical issues like managing the transition areas from rigid to flexible substrates, making successful connections between textiles and electronic components and coping with the challenges of weather or laundry proofing.  Solving these issues with LEDs could form the “jumping off point” for a much broader range of electronic components.

OLEDS offer the opportunity for even more flexibility and energy savings than traditional LEDs with these printed devices providing totally new flexible form factors for lighting.  At the moment however, relatively high production costs, some wavelength restrictions and the challenges of creating effective flexible encapsulation are among the main constraints faced in making the transition from stunning lab based concepts to the mass market.   With work in active matrix amoleds being driven by the large consumer electronics manufacturers however, it is clear that the emergence of these new lightweight, flexible displays may eventually replace many current traditional LED functions.

Holst Centre TransparentOled.

The core topic of creating flexible electronic circuits was addressed in several approaches, from using different grades of composite structures for managing the transition from stiff islands to flexible polymer sections, to the use of foil meanders embedded in PDMS or stretched out and applied to textile carriers, printing foils onto pre-stretched elastomers and even one approach using fluid channels.  Like the “digital tattoos” formed from ultrathin plastic electronics, these enabling technologies are not yet commercially ready, but the sheer volume of development work in this area, much of it driven by real world requirements for new healthcare applications, coupled with the progress to date suggests that this stage is fast approaching.

Aside from lighting applications, the use of microelectronic RFID tags embedded in yarns and the development of ultra lightweight flexible photovoltaic films offered a glimpse of entirely new future applications.

Commercial products

Day two of the conference saw something of a change in gear as the spotlight moved from foil & flex technologies, lighting and stretchable circuits and components to (mostly) commercial products.  The early session covered sports and wearables, taking in variations in desirable form factors (with the ideal monitoring products becoming “invisibly” integrated in clothing) to data accuracy and requirements of current and emerging monitoring systems. 

This was followed by some diverse textile applications from conductive yarn developments to some thought provoking concepts developed for helping dementia patients to remain “connected” and create immersive storytelling experiences for children through the use of technologies including image recognition software and vibration modules integrated into textile products like duvet covers and pillows.  By effectively “hiding” what might otherwise be daunting technology in more recognisable and acceptable forms.

Flex-Stretch workshop.

Further medical applications were discussed in the closing session where some of the most jaw-dropping devices were shown, including some incredible flexible microelectronics for catheter devices and organ-on-a chip developments.  The astonishing advances in neurosurgery and prosthetics demonstrated some very clear opportunities for flexible electronics in a presentation by Otto Bock, whilst Clothing Plus showed just, how far textile sensors have come in a few short years but just how much further there is to go when looking to close some of the medical application gaps.

Conclusions

The Flex-Stretch workshop and conference offers less of an “introduction” to e-textiles than a master-class in the latest developments and emerging trends.  Much of the information is quite technical and assumes a level of knowledge to begin with.  With such a technical bias, it is inevitable that parts of the conference are simply incomprehensible to electronics novices, although for the most part, the sessions were pretty accessible.  The pace and content was fast and packed fit to burst, which made the experience quite exhausting at times and may have benefitted from more focus and less content. 

Sometimes, less really is more and had the sessions stuck to their original schedule, the networking breaks would have been similarly less hurried and more beneficial overall.  The venues and organisation (other than the overruns) were excellent, the topic range and mix of research and commercial content were informative and inspiring. 

Overall the Flex-Stretch workshop and conference offered an exceptional learning and networking experience for those interested or involved in E-textiles.  With the recent shift in emphasis towards textiles, the organisers are considering a new, textile specific event next year and we are keen to gauge the level of interest in such an event, so please let us have your feedback.

Now if they could just squeeze in those yoga / meditation sessions to sooth my overheated brain…that would be just grand.

FP7 Project websites

http://www.place-it-project.eu

http://www.pasta-project.eu

http://www.i-tex.nl/

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About Cath Rogan

Cath Rogan.Cath Rogan.Cath Rogan is the Principal of Smart Garment People, a boutique consulting business that helps customers make clothing “smart” and technology wearable.  Cath has spent over two decades developing technical fabrics and clothing for some of the world’s leading outdoor and sports brands, including Karrimor, Berghaus, Barbour, Lowe Alpine, Henri Lloyd, TNF, Patagonia, Nike, Puma and Adidas. More recently, her work has taken her into specialist protective clothing for chemical, biological and ballistic protection, along with wearable health and fitness monitoring.

www.smartgarmentpeople.com

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