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News | Sept. 25, 2015

AFRL seeking to advance a new breed of electronics through manufacturing institute

By Holly Jordan AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is paving the way for a new class of innovative military and commercial tools through the establishment of the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute (FHE-MII).

The FHE-MII is one of seven manufacturing institutes currently established as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NMMI) initiative.  Announced by the White House in 2012, the NMMI will establish a network of institutes to nurture manufacturing innovation and accelerate commercialization in the US. 

AFRL and The Army Research Laboratory are jointly managing the cooperative agreement establishing the FHE-MII, which was awarded to FlexTech Alliance, a non-profit Research and Development consortium based in San Jose, Calif.  The agreement will bring together partners from industry, academia, and government to leverage resources, establish collaborative efforts, and co-invest to develop new Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) capabilities and manufacturing processes.

FHE is an emerging technology that enables a new breed of stretchable, wearable, conformal electronic sensors for a multitude of potential uses.  Flexible electronics can be used in military and commercial applications such as conformal antennas, lightweight energy storage, and structural health monitoring, to name only a few.  FHE can enable innovative medical tools and devices, including wearable sensors that can detect changes in body chemistry to indicate stress levels and new types of prosthetics and wireless medical diagnostic and monitoring devices.  Many currently existing products can be made lighter, smaller, and more versatile through FHE technology. 

Although much research is currently being conducted in FHE, the research base has been fragmented and spread across multiple private and governmental organizations.  The FHE-MII will unite the research community to facilitate idea- and resource-sharing and create an industrial supply chain.

Dr. Benjamin Leever, AFRL Lead for Functional Additive Manufacturing Materials, says AFRL played an integral role in the establishment of the Institute and will be involved in its continued development.

"In addition to providing management, we expect AFRL scientists and engineers to serve on formal and informal advisory councils and working groups that will contribute to the Institute's technical planning and ensure that technologies developed by the Institute meet the needs of the Air Force," says Leever.  He adds that although the FHE-MII cannot fund AFRL manufacturing research, AFRL researchers may partner with companies and universities on Institute projects that can benefit the Air Force.

According to Leever, the FHE-MII will create lasting benefits for all participants.  Through technical planning, collaboration, and an education and workforce development initiative, the Institute will create a unified FHE manufacturing ecosystem, ultimately resulting in less expensive and more easily-produced FHE.  The Institute will also develop manufacturing and testing standards and design tools to provide uniform processes across the board. 

AFRL will have access to the FHE Prototyping and Testing facility that will be located in San Jose, and AFRL researchers will benefit from using the FHE-MII's facilities to turn AFRL-developed proof-of-concept demonstrations into manufacturable, affordable, and reliable products.  The Institute will also increase opportunities for networking and collaboration with technology partners.

"AFRL is very excited about what the Institute will mean for the future of flexible hybrid electronics technology," says Leever.  "The capabilities that will emerge from this agreement will lead to increased awareness and revolutionary breakthroughs that will benefit the warfighter in ways previously unimaginable."