Earlier this month I took a field trip to the Flex campus in Milpitas, Calif. and found what might be my ultimate dream job if I ever tire of typing newsletters while sitting on my couch eating Captain Crunch and gossiping with people via text message.
Flex, which used to be known as Flextronics, makes things. With the name change in 2015, Flex likes to say it can now take an idea and turn it from a sketch into scale. By scale, it means it can make tens of thousands of something. Flex, and its rival in contract manufacturing Jabil, puts the things in the internet of things.
So about that dream job. My new plan B job is to become one of the Flex engineers that companies come to with ideas. The engineers then tell the companies what technologies Flex might have, or might know of, to turn a client’s vision into reality. So if you want to make a bracelet that tells you if your kid has been in the sun too long, or a drone that can deliver burritos, Flex can walk you through the process.
In addition to my alternative job, I saw three technologies worth talking about.
I met a scientist named Anwar Mohammed who showed me the stretchy plastic fabric pictured above. The idea here is to print conductive materials on top of a plastic fabric that can be stretched without affecting the conductive material. This has a potential home in clothing, bandages and even automotive upholstery.
Mohammed also displayed a sensor made of a monolayer of graphene that could detect glucose in a person’s sweat: not their actual sweat that occurs during and after a mile run, but the non-detectable emanations from a person’s skin. Such a sensitive sensor would lead to non-invasive glucose tests, which would be a boon to diabetics sick of pricking themselves every day to test their glucose levels.
The sensor Mohammed showed me was roughly six-to-nine months out from commercialization, and obviously anything aimed at measuring glucose as part of a medical device would need FDA approval. Yet, the potential for diabetics is huge. It could also detect electrolyte, lactate, opioid, and hydration levels.
Finally, for the chip nerds, Mohammed showed off ways to bond transistors to what was formerly an incompatible substrate using silver. Flex calls this a stretchable die-attach material. The breakthrough is around letting two materials with different heat tolerances stick together. Without the new stretchable die-attach material it’s impossible to use a metal that might expand twice as much under heat compared to something that only expands by 1.5 times at the same temperature without the two cracking.
This is similar to how buildings are constructed in earthquake zones to flex with the movement of the earth. The difference here is that it happens at a microscopic level between metals on a chip. The practical upside of this is you can now build smaller chips that won’t require fans to dissipate heat. This means you could use a silicon chip and can bond a copper heat sink to it with the new material in between. In wearable sensors, smaller is better. And eliminating the fan means you don’t use as much battery power. Cool.
Basically, I saw the future of wearables for fabrics, better biological sensing and more. I also discussed some of this, including privacy implications, in the podcast this week. Keep reading to find out more (and be sure to listen to the podcast).