Photo by William Brawley

On Aug. 28, Tech undertook the mission for the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute (FHE-MII), the seventh division of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) program. The goal of advancing manufacturing technology via NNMI was conceived by the Obama administration.

“Imagine skin-like electronic patches with sensors that can wirelessly alert when a pilot is fatigued, smart and flexible wrappers that can monitor the quality of food and tablets that can be folded and kept in your pocket,” said Suresh Sitaraman, a Mechanical Engineering Professor, who now leads the FHE-MII organization. “Many of these ideas are in various stages of research today, and only through an effective manufacturing pathway will these innovative research pursuits be transitioned into viable products.”

Circuits and systems that can perform normally under physical force or distortion are given the attribute “flexible.” The electronics that can handle different elements such as logic, memory, sensors, batteries, antennas and various passives are given the attribute “hybrid”. Cheaper production of flexible electronics technology is expected to have primary application in health care, consumer, automotive, aerospace, energy and defense.

The U.S. Department of Defense has committed five years’ funding of $75 million for FHE-MII. The sum will additionally grow with support coming from private companies, universities, several U.S. states, not-for-profit organizations and the city of San Jose, Calif. The cost share of more than $96 million falls onto the FlexTech Alliance.

“Georgia Tech has made great forays into design, simulation and packaging for microelectronic systems,” Sitaraman said. “Several ongoing research programs focus on sensors, antennas, photovoltaics and other energy harvesting devices, batteries, interconnects and assemblies. In addition to fabricating and assembling various components, Tech has capabilities for testing and reliability assessment through experiments and computer models.”

The initiative also functions with faculty from the Schools of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering and Industrial and Systems Engineering. The Institute of Electronics and Nanotechnology, the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute, the Institute of Materials and the Office of Industry Collaboration also engage in the effort.

“This effort will not only create new patents but also will provide manufacturing pathways for existing patents and ideas to become technology demonstrators and viable products,” Sitaraman said.

The push for progress to be made in electrical and mechanical design, materials and fabrication, printing and assembly, testing and reliability and workforce development in collaboration with industry are not only pulling in Tech’s resources together but also the resources of companies, laboratories, non-profit organizations, other universities and state and regional organizations in the United States.

In order to streamline the movement from research to the early-stage manufacturing prototype line, joint organizations in different regions tackle the issue with varying angles. Tech and the University of Texas at Austin are the academic league particularly responsible for the System Design and Fabrication Node. Other nodes include integrated circuit thinning, integration and assembly and flexible hybrid electronics applications.

“The strength of the Institute will stem from the strong support and previous work of our partner organizations,” said Malcolm Thompson, Executive Director of the FHE-MII. “Georgia Tech’s advanced work and broad understanding in so many of the Institute’s key manufacturing thrusts — including electronic systems modeling and design, printed electronics and packaging, assembly, testing and reliability assessment — will provide great benefits to both of our organizations.”

FlexTech Alliance will be in charge of giving overall project guidance as well as creating prototypes and developing manufacturing readiness levels. Currently, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Texas are among the states with participating educational institutes and centers.