Electronics have wormed their way into our daily lives in ways few of us could ever have imagined. In their early days, especially post-World War II through the 1950s, electronics were largely used to entertain us—the sound of radio and the pictures of television. Those two drivers have clearly not gone away; if anything, they are woven into our lives by internet and smartphone technologies where sound and images demand our attention nearly every waking moment.
Today, the so-called metaverse seeks to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Things that were pure speculation and pipe dreams in the late 1960s, such as the Star Trek communicators, are now physically manifest in our daily lives. The source of these developments has been the unfettered imagination of countless visionaries within the electronics industry.
The Desire for Change
Change, or the search for and openness to it, will arguably be a cornerstone of the electronics industry. It is the fuel that runs the global economic engine; as economists have observed, this growth is predicated on change and is based on the axiom that success of an economy is founded on the notion that an individual’s wants must exceed their needs. If we collectively lose our appetites for change, everything grinds to a halt.
The electronics industry is continuously being pressured to develop newer and better products with more functions and at lower cost. One might think that this is the result of consumer demands; however, Steve Jobs once made a great observation:
“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, a faster horse.' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
It is difficult to argue with Jobs’ observation because it has turned out to be largely accurate. Customers are not the product visionaries; that is not their role, but they do know what they like and want when they see it. The desire for change is normally sparked by something outside of us rather than something from within—though it is likely that each of has said to ourselves at some point: “I wish somebody would invent a...”
In recent years, it is our current dissatisfactions that most often initiate a move to change. It is sparked more with the product designer or design team than by the consumer. There is an almost biological aspect to the growth and evolution of electronic products. There is also, of course, a rational force driving the development and introduction of every new electronic product but at a certain point, electronic products seem to take on a life of their own.
Moreover, in their development and growth (i.e., change), there is a Darwinian-like quality to the process. Electronic products that adapt quickest and most readily to the winds of change are able to thrive; those that don't are pushed back to wither and die. Adaptation is key to survival and the synergistic (or symbiotic, if you wish) linking of adaptive technologies that offer obvious and beneficial potential and a prospective path to securing such benefit. It is not difficult to assume that evolution is often preceded and influenced by some moment of inspiration.
The Most Adaptive of All
Unquestionably, flexible circuits are among the most adaptive and adaptable of all electronic interconnection technologies and perhaps the most inspirational as well. Their adaptability has not been overlooked by keen product developers, from assemblers to packagers. Over the last couple of decades, the range of applications for flexible circuits has grown at an impressive rate as the technology has been adapted to a host of new interconnection opportunities.
The historical roles of flex circuits, such as wire harness replacement, 3D interconnection enabler, and dynamic interconnection scheme to connect parts of an electronic assembly designed to move relative to one another. They continue to be exploited, but branching into new areas has accelerated with the creation of consortiums such as NextFlex and its rebranding of flexible circuits as “flexible electronics,” “flex hybrid electronics,” “stretchable circuits,” and more importantly, creating an environment where suppliers of materials, processes, and equipment can come to explore, prototype, and demonstrate their dreams for the future.
Changes continue to roll forth with enabling technologies that support those dreams. This includes e-textiles to the materials mix, recently supported through IPC standards IPC-8921, IPC-8951, and IPC-8972. These cover the material requirements, design, and testing requirements needed to support the emerging technologies which are certain to spawn yet a new range of products that the consumer does not yet know they need to make their lives better, more interesting, and enjoyable as we begin to explore in greater depth the relatively new category of electronics called “wearables.”
Inspiration’s Role in Change
Again, this commentary has been about change—inspiring, enabling, adapting to, and mastering change. Inspiration, insight, or whatever you might want to call it, is vital in the change process. We can now see with ever greater clarity how the formerly sharp lines between fundamental elements of electronics assembly are blurring. The components and substrates, especially flexible substrates and even assembly technologies, are being used in a more coherent and cooperative way than ever before, as evidenced by the new era of heterogeneous integration which is upon us. The relative strengths of often very different technologies, especially flexible circuits, all adaptive and adaptable, are enabling us to get ever more value from our electronic products. Ironically and perhaps fittingly, the only thing that will never change is change.
Download your free copy of Fjelstad’s book Flexible Circuit Technology, 4th Edition, and watch his in-depth workshop series “Flexible Circuit Technology.”
This column originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Desig007 Magazine.