TWINflex-Stretch opens up new avenues for microelectronics on, or even inside, the body. Malte von Krshiwoblozki, Team Leader, and Manuel Seckel, Research Associate, from Fraunhofer IZM (Institute for Reliability and Microintegration) on the development, applications and future of wearables.
What challenges did you face while developing TWINflex-Stretch?
We wanted to develop a stretchable circuit board. A circuit board that manufacturers could produce using their existing infrastructure – in other words, without any additional machines or investments. To do this, we had to find materials that could be adapted to different processes. It is not just a matter of manufacturing the circuit board itself but also equipping it with electronic components. During the development phase, we performed countless tests and examinations. We are quite proud of the result.
How are the electronics actually integrated into the textiles?
If you take a look at TWINflex-Stretch, you can think of it like ironing a patch onto a holey pair of jeans. Except that in this case we are not talking about ironing but rather laminating. Bonding processes have proven successful in other smart textiles. Or it can be soldered and encapsulated if the material permits.
The circuit boards are now washable, stretchable and flexible. What might the next advancement look like?
Currently, we are testing whether such thermoplastic circuit boards can be used to generate three-dimensional electronic products economically: such as novel lighting solutions and 3D antenna structures or arrays, in 5G applications for example. 5G is the designation for the fifth generation of mobile broadband technology, which is set to be released on the market by 2020. Its transmission speed is supposed to be about ten-times faster than the current LTE speed. For such electronic products, the circuit boards are manufactured as per usual and then molded into the desired 3D shape by means of a thermoforming process. At the same time, we are working on new circuit boards with textile-based circuits in “Project TexPCB”, which promise considerably enhanced robustness with regard to mechanical stresses. An enormous step forward in the field of e-textiles, paving the way for entirely new products.
Will we all turn into cyborgs some day and wear electronics inside or bodies, or is that just science fiction?
As a matter of fact, we are well on our way. The field of medical technology in particular continues to make rapid advancements. This also holds true for the research in the field of brain-computer interfaces. The ‘cyborgs’ of the future will have tiny, invisible medical implants. Such implants already exist to some extent if you think about pacemakers or cochlear implants, i.e. hearing aids. However, they cannot be compared to the cyborgs from the science fiction scenarios portrayed in the 1980s and 90s.
What ethical challenges do wearables pose?
The most ethically relevant aspect when it comes to wearables is essentially the act of obtaining personal data. This could include data on vital signs, activity profiles and movement analyses. If this data is analyzed by an artificial intelligence, then important information can be derived regarding the state of health and behavioral patterns of the respective people. Ideally, illnesses can be detected early on, for example. Furthermore, patients can prove to their health insurance provider that they have a healthy lifestyle – thus entitling them to discounts. But: This information can also be abused. Therefore, we need new mechanisms for handling data that can cope with the new circumstances.