Flexible Circuit Technology Promises Low-Cost Electronics for IoT Apps

Image courtesy of PragmatIC Wafer on a frame image.JPG
PragmatIC has developed a low-cost production technology that fabricates circuits on flexible substrates that can be assembled into curved or irregular surfaces.
Patented foundry mass produces electronics on flexible substrates for high-volume, low-cost applications.

One challenge in implementing IoT (Internet of Things) technology is the cost of scaling the technology for applications where low cost is paramount. PragmatIC, a UK-based semiconductor foundry company, has developed a technology that fabricates circuits on flexible substrates that can be assembled into curved or irregular surfaces. The technology will make it possible to deposit electronic labels or other RFID tags on pharmaceuticals, food containers, and other consumer parts to implement IoT applications.

Founded over a decade ago, Pragmatic has for years been working on flexible substrate technology that would enable the use of electronics labels on consumer goods. The company’s technology aims at applications where existing rigid silicon is too costly or inflexible. With the growth of the IoT, the need for low-cost electronics has taken on greater importance as retail and medical vendors seek to electronically tag products as they make their way through the supply chain.

“We are aiming for high-volume processing,” said Catherine Ramsdale, Senior VP of Technology, in an interview with Design News. “Traditional silicon does not conform to flexible surfaces and does not withstand high-volume processing such as in a bottling plant.”

PragmatIC’s technology is a thin-film-transistor (TFT) process that deposits ICs onto a glass wafer coated with a Kapton-like polyamide film. As the ICs are on the film, the flexble circuits can be bent and conform to the shape of the product it is assembled onto. PragmatIC’s foundry process separates the polyamide film from the glass wafers, then cuts them for depositing them onto products.

PragmatIC’s foundry service can accommodate ICs up to 30 µm thick and handle a wide range of devices such transistors, resistors, and capacitors. The company’s four metal layer stack makes for efficient interconnects, and NRE costs are low.

Flexible circuit production processes are not new. Applications exist where roll-to-roll manufacturing is used to deposit circuits on flexible substrates. But Ramsdale explained that those technologies may not be able to achieve the circuit resolution required for the electronics applications PragmatIC is aiming at.

Recently, the company worked with researchers from the University of Illinois to demonstrate the ability to mass produce 4-bit microcontrollers, with high yield. PragmatIC’s technology would enable the incorporation of electronics in low-cost, low-power applications, such as RFID, to improve supply-chain logistics, for instance.

According to Ramsdale, PragmatIC’s foundry service uses standard production equipment and processes. The company has formed partnerships with some large unnamed partners and is gradually ramping into volume production. While the company now has a pilot production facility, it is planning to open a larger foundry to accommodate volume customers.

Other future plans for PragmatIC include handling a range of sensor interfaces, greater circuit complexity, system-on-flex ICs, and higher frequency products.


TAGS: Materials
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