By Edwin L. Aguirre
NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Institute, has awarded three projects with a total contract value of $4.4 million to researchers from the UMass Lowell Nanomanufacturing Center, defense contractor Raytheon IDS and SI2 Technologies. The goal is to develop innovative manufacturing processes to help advance the country’s capability and leadership in flexible hybrid electronics (FHE).
FHE combines ultrathin silicon components, conductive and active inks and high-precision printing technologies to fabricate sensors that are lightweight, low-cost and can conform to irregular shapes. By printing electronic circuits on bendable, stretchable substrates, these fully functional devices can be applied to almost any surface or object — from medical devices, tents and backpacks to cars, jet engines and buildings — for wireless monitoring. The real-time monitoring can lead to improved health, safety and efficiency.
The first NextFlex project — $1.9 million contract — was awarded to Joey Mead, Alkim Akyurtlu, Carol Barry and Mary Herndon for their project, called “Multi-functional substrates and printing integration for RF [radio-frequency] devices.” The manufacturing processes that are being developed during the project are being used to design the next generation of adaptive printed RF and microwave antenna components and devices required for GPS navigation and ground-based radar systems for military applications.
Mead and Barry are both professors of plastics engineering. Mead directs the Nanomanufacturing Center; Akyurtlu is a professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and deputy director of the university’s Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC). Herndon is an engineering fellow at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems.
“UMass Lowell is a leader in plastics engineering and has significant expertise and facilities for multifunctional plastics manufacturing, nanoscale manufacturing and printed electronics,” says Mead, who is the overall lead for the NextFlex initiative. “Our project will advance the manufacturability of printed RF electronics by creating continuous, roll-to-roll manufacturing processes for dielectric substrates and conductive patterning.”
The faculty researchers are collaborating closely with Raytheon, a global leader in RF systems, along with other industry partners like Dassault Systèmes SIMULIA Corp. and CST, to accelerate the adoption of multifunctional substrates that are compatible with a broad range of inks and printing processes.
The substrates that the team is developing have novel electromagnetic properties, including tunability, which allows researchers to tune the behavior of the devices from one frequency to another, notes Akyurtlu.
“For example, we’ll be able to steer a printed antenna’s radio beam electronically, without the use of bulky, expensive and costly mechanical steering,” she says. “The antenna is even foldable, which offers compactness and portability in the field.”
Testing the Durability and Reliability of FHE Devices
The second project — a $1.1 million contract — was awarded to the team of mechanical engineering Asst. Profs. Alireza Amirkhizi and Scott Stapleton and Herndon for their research on methods for testing the electrical and mechanical durability of FHE devices — work they hope will influence the development of future testing equipment for the industry.
“To accelerate the adoption of flexible hybrid electronics, it is important to predict their failure mechanisms and reliable life accurately,” says Amirkhizi. “Currently, such evaluations are undertaken on a case-by-case basis.”
The team will establish test methods and the necessary infrastructure for characterizing the mechanical strength and electrical integrity of selected simple and complex FHE devices when subjected to deformation, multi-axial stresses, impact loads and temperature extremes.
“The data collected will be used to calibrate existing or new constitutive models and will be introduced into computational software suites. This will also influence the design of the next generation of commercial test equipment. Ultimately, the protocols and infrastructure established in this effort will be available for use by the FHE manufacturing and R&D community,” says Amirkhizi.
UMass Lowell’s current state-of-the-art facilities for dynamic and impact testing on North Campus have been expanded with two new multi-axial load-frames, acquired from TA Instruments through the state’s cost-share contribution.
“This will create a central hub of characterization facilities at UMass Lowell that will be available for use by the FHE community and NextFlex members. The knowledge and data gleaned will also be used for future workforce training workshops and seminars offered through UMass Lowell’s Continuing Education program and NextFlex online seminars,” says Amirkhizi.
Fabricating the Next Generation of Deployable Antennas
SI2 Technologies, Inc., a Billerica-based manufacturer of advanced electronics for military and aerospace applications, has teamed up with Raytheon and UMass Lowell to develop the next generation of deployable FHE X-band antenna arrays. The project — a $1.4 million contract — is led by SI2 Technologies. UML’s role is in developing additive manufacturing solutions and antenna measurements. The effort is led by Akyurtlu as the principal investigator (PI) and ECE Prof. and PERC Director Craig Armiento as co-PI.
“Our cylindrical array FHE X-band antenna will respond to the aviation industry’s need for a high-performance but affordable phased-array antenna,” says Akyurtlu, explaining that most of today’s civil and commercial radar systems rely on a rotating parabolic dish antenna, which is mechanically steered to provide 360-degree coverage.
“While acquisition and installation are affordable, the performance of a mechanically steered dish antenna is inferior to that of an electronically steered, or nonmoving, phased array. Furthermore, the moving parts in the dish antenna require maintenance, which can be costly,” she says.
All NextFlex project contracts include cost-share amounts from the participants and the Massachusetts Manufacturing Investment Initiative, or M2I2, a program of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.