Injection Molded Structural Electronics and Designing in a 3D Space

Judy Warner
|  Created: August 28, 2018  |  Updated: February 5, 2021

Sini Rytky, VP of Product Management at TactoTek, and Tuomas Heikkilä, Senior Electronics , join Judy Warner on the OnTrack Podcast to talk about Injection Molded Structural Electronics, or IMSE, the integrating of electronics inside 3-dimensional electronics to create smart surfaces. TactoTek is a leading provider of solutions for 3D structural electronics, enabling the integration of printed circuitry and discrete electronic components into injection molded plastics. Listen to how TactoTek and Altium are combining forces to research and develop design rules for this entirely new technology. Learn more about this and how you can meet them at AltiumLive 2018.

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Show Highlights:

  • Guests today: Sini Rytky VP of Product Management at TactoTek and Mr Tuomas Heikkilä Sr Electronics - Injection Molded Structural Electronics (IMSE) technology, background in mobile phone industry
  • Injection Molded Structural Electronics or IMSE means integrating electronics inside 3-dimensional electronics to create smart surfaces
  • Examples include: capacitive touch functions, illuminated icons, wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth and near-field communication
  • IMSE solves many traditional problems, but it also creates additional use cases to create electronics
  • Film, components, injection mold into one single piece
  • Benefits - save up to 90% of the assembly depth and 80% of part weight - creates beautiful, and seamless intuitive user interface
  • application - Human-machine interface with automotive manufacturers
  • Wearables and Electronics in textiles
  • Also allows customers to vertically integrate and extend their offering
  • Designing smart structures - how is design different for PCB designers?
  • Materials research and chemistry research is foundation for understanding Material Stacks like these.
  • Key element is the height of the component, it needs to fit in the product and it needs to withstand the injection molding.
  • Uses standard PCB processes, and then injection mold afterwards.
  • Starting to develop new design rules for a new technology, this will help designers ramp up and use the technology. PCB layer stackup is currently being used, if the IMSE stackup can be defined it will make the process faster.
  • Currently checking dielectric manually, very time consuming. i.e. allow user to add constraints
  • TactoTek is at the center of convergence -  blurring the lines between disciplines.
  • Come see TactoTek’s IMSE technology at AltiumLive 2018: Annual PCB Design Summit

Links and Resources:

TacoTek Website  

TactoTek Overview Video

TactoTek Newsletter sign up

Tactotek in the News

Tactotek® Injection Molded Structural Electronics (IMSE) Solution Is Automotive Certified

TactoTek Unveils 3D Manufacturing Process

AltiumLive 2018: Annual PCB Design Summit

REGISTER for AltiumLive 2018: Annual PCB Design Summit

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Hey everyone this is Judy with Altium's OnTrack podcast. Thanks for joining again. I have two amazing guests hailing all the way from Finland today and I look forward to sharing them with you. Before then I ask you to please connect with me on LinkedIn, on Twitter I'm @AltiumJudy and Altium is on all the traditional social media channels Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

So today we have a look into the future of technology with TactoTek and I have two wonderful guests, Sini Rytky and Tuomas Heikkilä. So we've been working here at Altium closely with Sini, Tuomas and their whole team there and we are excited to show you, kind of this cutting-edge technology, and the amazing things that they're doing in Finland to advance a whole litany of advanced electronics manufacturing and technology and while we continue to work feverishly on AD19 and getting in the traditional functions that you would like, I wanted to give you a sneak peek on something more for the future. This is not going to be in AD19, but we continue to work together, sort of on a research kind of function, with these two and all of TactoTek. So I'm excited for you to learn more about them - so let's get started. Sini, Tuomas, welcome.

Thank you Judy for having us here.

So Sini, I think I'm going to start with you. Can you tell us a little - well before we get going, why don't you both introduce yourselves and tell us your background in the industry and what exactly your role entails at TactoTek?

Sure, so my name is Sini Rytky and I'm heading the Product Management at TactoTek. In practice it means that my team is responsible for technology productization and roadmapping and go to market strategy and planning. And also technology partnership development. My personal background: I am a Software Major, but spent about 20 years in mostly hardware driven business. In electronics  manufacturing and test automation in consumer electronics and automotive industries. It is my first podcast ever - I'm very excited!

How about you Tuomas?

Okay so my name is Tuomas Heikkilä and I'm the Senior Hardware Specialist and I have worked for TactoTek, for almost six years now. All of this time I have designed and developed. I oversee technology from an electronics point of view. So my background: I have worked also in the mobile phone industry before joining TactoTek.

Along those lines Tuomas, can you tell us about - for those that aren't familiar what the acronym IMSE means?

IMSE means Injection Molded Structural Electronics.

Very good because I know we'll be using that term a lot and because you guys are sort of cutting-edge I thought there's maybe some people in the audience that might not be familiar with that term. So Sini, let's just jump right in. Can you talk about - I'm asking you three really big things: the technology, the market, and really the problems it solves for technologists in the marketplace?

Sure to start off with the technology; like Tuomas said, our technology is called Injection Molded Structural Electronics which we call IMSE. To put it simply in one sentence, we are integrating electronics inside three-dimensional plastics, and as a result we can create smart surfaces with electronic functionality such as capacitive touch functions, illuminated icons and wireless connectivity such as Bluetooth and near-field communication.

So when we look at traditional electro-mechanics assembly, they typically consist of one, or a multi PCB structure along with the surrounding mechanics and from a design point of view the challenge is that many times it is restricted with, for example, dimensional constraints or space limitations or weight limitations.

And then from a manufacturing point of view; they typically have a large number of individual toolings and assembly phases. So with IMSE we can solve many of the problems for traditional electronics and mechanics, but we can also create totally new use cases and integrate electronics in places where traditional electronics and mechanics fail to do so. So, if we just briefly visit our process. We start by printing colored and conductive inks on flexible films, and continue by mounting surface mounted electronic components and continue by forming that film along with the components into a three-dimensional shape. And then finally, we injection mold all of that into a single piece assembly. So when we look at the benefits the IMSE part structure - if we compare it with traditional electronics and mechanics - we can save up to, I'd say, 90% of the assembly depth, save up to...


-yeah that's a big number.

That's a big number yeah, and up to 80% of the part weight and at the same time, of course, we're enabling beautiful, seamless, smart surfaces and we can create - we talk a lot about point of views at TactoTek, and by that we mean, that IMSE enables intuitive user interfaces. So no longer do we have to have a complex HMI with all of the centralized functions, but we can create point of view functionalities. So for example, integrating capacitive touch enabled volume control on top of speaker modules.

So those are some of the - let's say challenges and benefits, that we've seen. And then when we look at the market, so obviously, this is a cross-industry technology, so there's -  we see a lot of benefits from various industries. A very application for IMSE is a human machine interface and we are currently working, for example, with the automotive segment; creating for example door trims and overhead control panels, appliances control panels, and we also work quite a lot with variables. So creating electronics in textiles...

Oh wow.

-yeah and that's actually...

I actually didn't know you were doing wearables, or that had escaped me in previous conversations, that's amazing!

Yes, yeah-yeah so the fact actually, that we are injection molding everything into a single part assembly, it also means that it's fully encapsulated, which means it's protected from debris and moisture. So yeah, so definitely when you think about electronics in fabrics our structures - we call wash and go, so they are very durable, and they can withstand like dozens of cycles and washing machines.


Yeah, yeah. And then maybe a couple of words about the business model. So we are licensing our technology for IMSE design manufacturing and validation. Which means that our customers, they can both benefit from the possibilities that IMSE creates in product design, but they can also enhance the vertical integration in a way that they can perform functions, that were previously outsourced, and further extend their offering for customers.

That's unbelievable - and I can - - my mind is just spinning with the kind of enablers that I can see, that this is going to bring over time. So thank you for sharing all that. On a more practical level, Tuomas and you know, the people who are listening to this podcast are typically engineers and printed circuit board designers. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of practical effects on PCB designers and the implications they would have, from a design standpoint, in designing what you're calling smart structures?

Yes. So if we first compare traditional PCB design and IMSE design there are few main differences which come from materials that we are using in IMSE technology and also the 3D shape. So if we first consider those materials: the substrate of printed film circuitries are the difference. So in IMSE technology we have quite a large patene plastic film, and if they convert this for rigid PCP - there is a big difference.


Another thing is trace resistance. So when we are printing traces using silver inks there is always some resistance, so we can never think that this resistance is zero.


So we have to always consider this in our design. Of course it depends on the ink used but the typical resistance differs between printed silver ink trace and PCB solid copper trace - roughly 100 times bigger. So there is a huge difference in resistances as well.


The third, which is really related to materials is dielectric. In PCBs there is no need to design, especially dielectrics, between two conductive traces but in IMSE design we need always to design a dielectric layer between two conductive layers and also, as I earlier mentioned, this 3D surface - I would like to highlight this as well - because it means that when the final shape of the product is somewhat kind of the correct 3D shape.

This means that the printed circuit would need to be designed a bit different than any PCBs.

So I'm gonna ask you more about those materials in a minute. But I was really impressed when I first saw it. I really thought it was a one- or two-sided only circuit structure and I'm really impressed to find out that no, it can be multi-layer and like you said Sini, completely encapsulated, so that opens up a lot of opportunities I think. So Sini, can you talk more specifically about the materials that are used for structural electronics?  I know Tuomas just mentioned the silver inks, the dielectric materials, that you can do multi layers. Just the materials overall are really different, so can you talk a little bit about those please?

Mm-hmm - yeah and I would say the key essence of our technology is really the know-how and understanding, of not just the individual materials, but the four material stack ups. So we need to, first of all, we need to obviously understand how all the elements perform together like the films, the inks, the components and so forth, and it's...

As if it wasn't complicated enough; the traditional boards.

-yes! So it all has to work in synergy and it's of course, it's like one thing to understand how they perform when they are in 2D, but in our case we are then also bending and stretching everything into that three-dimensional shape. So that process as a whole, has a huge effect on the material characteristics and performance values. Like Tuomas mentioned before, for example, the conductive ink resistance changes over the manufacturing period so it's a big pile of materials research and chemistry as a whole that we have done to understand the behavior of different material stack ups. So we - of course we try to be on top of what works together and of course - what doesn't. So...

And so do you publish those, or will you be publishing those in the form of a datasheet, so when a PCB designer might move into this space that they'd have some guidelines?

Yes. So obviously, the material stacks are one element of our licensing content. So we are able to provide our customers with validated and functional material stacks that they can use to test our building products.

How long have you been at this? Because I know you work with materials and that, that is a long, arduous process. It takes a lot of discipline.

Mm-hmm - yeah so we've been around since 2011 and we've used a lot of time and effort for exactly materials research, and creating the validation processes. So now we're in 2018 and we are mass manufacturable so it takes time.

Yes it sure does, yeah when I've talked to friends that are chemists, it just takes a long time. So, back to you Tuomas, with all those different materials, and you mentioned also embedded components. So I would like our audience to learn more about the implications which you began to talk about - with the printed inks, the silver inks, and what not. But what are some other implications of those different materials? And what kind of components - because you're really talking about embedded components here I take it? So help us understand that a little bit more?

So like Sini said, understanding materials and materials tax, those are very important. So as I earlier said, this trace resistance for example, it is a big thing. Also another example is this flexible film which are speaking back to SMD process, for example. So typically we are using small SMD components like LEDs, resistors, diodes, transistors...


-traditional yes.

Oh okay.

Traditional off the shelf components.

But when we are selecting components on our IMSE products, the key element is the height of the component. So the component should fit inside the product, it's the first thing. The second thing is that when we are injection molding the product the melted plastic flows over the component - so the component should stand this injection molding and yes, the thinner the component the better.

Okay so - and I am certain that you have to take in consideration the thermal implications of what kind of thermal conditions those components can survive in?

Yes we have also considered this.

So for our listeners; I just want to let you know we're gonna connect all kinds of links and pictures because if you're like me you need some visuals to really understand - this is sort of hard to do - in the form of a podcast - it's a little difficult to talk about, but again I want to remind our listeners that we are recording simultaneously on YouTube and also we're not showing visuals here but we will put up a myriad of links and photos. Because if you're like me, you need pictures okay so.

Yeah actually we have a white paper regarding this.


Will you share that with us Tuomas? Okay great.

Yes yes. Okay. It's just in our webpage so we can share the link of course.

Wonderful and the other thing that I wasn't clear about is: so you do the printed portion of the process and then you mold. It's not like you're creating it on a 3D surface right? Or does it go both ways?

We first print, this is 2D, then we place the component; assembly process, after that is forming process, the film takes its 3D shape, and after that comes injection molding.

This is actually the reason why we are doing this, is that we want to enable our customers to use just standard electronics manufacturing equipment. So when we are placing the components in 2D, it means that we don't have to have anything like 3D pick-and-place or anything like that - you can use standard PCB manufacturing equipment.

And then you mold. Which seems so counterintuitive? I don't know how you guys are doing it. I think you're magicians so...

You have to come and see it. I know - oh speaking of which also I'd like to let our listeners know that I'm delighted that Sini and TactoTek have agreed to come be a sponsor at AltiumLive they will have a booth there. They will have physical samples and you'll be able to see this and if you're like me, I think this all of a sudden aha moment happens when you can physically see - or like Tuomas said, read a white paper and you have some kind of visual representation of what's happening. And you will gasp. It's really incredible to watch so I invite you always to come to AltiumLive in San Diego or Munich and see them there.

So let's jump into how Altium and TactoTek had the good fortune to come together. Sini you started to talk about a challenge you guys had to face in that, there was a gap in the design tools to support your technology so, our team have been working with you for a while so can you tell us, sort of what that process has been like and, sort of how we've been working together?

Yeah, so I think for us, how we have worked so far is that, obviously we have a lot of design disciplines that contribute to the IMSE, structure not just electronics and mechanics, but also graphics design, antenna design, and illumination design. So all of those different design elements have to work in perfect synergy, because we don't have those separate structures but we only have that film and everything is on top of that one or two films. So the element that we have been missing so far in the design tools is the support of design for IMSE types.

So we've been using Altium for years for electronic design, but we've been sort of manipulating the tool which is meant for PCB design and we are using familiar functions for something else. So today we are not just using the tool anymore but we've been very, very happy to start really working with Altium and doing research on specific features and automation we could integrate in the tools in the future to enable more efficient design process for IMSE and printed electronics as a whole.

Which is so exciting to me. So if I understand you correctly, then we're really starting to develop design rules for a whole new technology?

Mm-hmm - exactly and in that way obviously shortening the learning curve for new technology and bringing it to the hands of the actual end users; the designers of the products.

Well I really love that you guys are using traditional mainstream tools like Altium Designer so designers, their ramp-up on the technology can be quicker and just using kind of some familiar things like a 2D manufacturing process so there's not this whole giant - there's not 20 obstacles in the way and such a learning curve, and such a huge investment, change of equipment - you've really been really thoughtful in integrating existing technology but then tweaking it.

Yeah, exactly.

Which is really exciting. Tuomas because you've been specifically on the hardware side; I look to you sort of as the voice of our audience. Can you talk about some specific examples in regards to things like stack up, DRC's. Can you give us some kind of down and dirty, you know, where the rubber meets the road sort of examples of how that's fleshing out?

Yes. So if I first start with the stack up; currently we are using PCB layer stack up in our designs, which is not it's not pure IMSE - and this stack up, this causes challenges and generates a lot of more work when we have transferred in design files between EGIT and for example in the simulator tool. So if we have a tool where we can define IMSE stack up as it is in real products, it makes the design process even faster. Second thing is the dielectrics. So at the moment we are designing and checking dielectrics manually.

It's time-consuming and there were still missing dielectrics in certain places and this caused failures during our production. This is very, very critical, so if the tool has, for example, dielectric generators, check the position for each dielectric and then place it according to user definitions, so it makes design even faster, and also makes the production more easier for us because there are no failures anymore.

Along those lines - from inside of the tool, will a designer actually have helps to help them choose a specific dielectric or is that something they'll need to know ahead of time? And then those dielectric constraints will be inside the tool - or do we know yet?

No we don't know yet.

Okay that's a good answer. That's okay. You know, I really see from my perspective in the industry, this tighter - and the lines between mechanical you know ECAD, MCAD, all the different design disciplines. the lines are just blurring - and I think that's never more true than with your technology. I think you made the lines disappear which is exciting and so enabling! Is there anything you wanted to say about that Sini, just about the different disciplines, or specific challenges that may come into play? Because you're bringing all of these things into play?

Yeah I think one very good example and Tuomas, I'm sure you are more familiar with them, is for example, a simple file transfer. So we need to be able to, first of all in IMSE, we have to be able to convert first a three-dimensional shape into a two-dimensional form. Then design electronics layout, then convert back to three-dimensional format, and during all of those processes, we need to have a file transfer mechanism that actually works in between the tools. So yah, like you said; the lines are blurring and we're excited to see how we can help in enabling this in the tools.

Well I'm very excited - before we wrap up is there anything I might have missed?

Thank you both for this interesting conversation, and I'll be sure to share your white paper and any links you like to share. Is there anything I may have missed, just because of my own ignorance - neglected to ask either of you about today?

I don't think so, not from my side. What do you think Tuomas?

No, not from my side as well.

Okay, well please be sure to share as many links as you can you guys, and again - I want to encourage our listeners to look - this is one set of show notes you're going to want to look into - and click through and see really where the future of technology is going. It's very exciting and as I say, we continue to develop our agenda.  You know things like high-speed stack-up, things like that within Altium Designer 19, but in the future we hope to be able to offer the enabling technology in a future release of Altium Designer.

So thank you both for your partnership and working together. It's been a delight and I also invite you again to join us at AltiumLive either in San Diego or Europe. TactoTek will be in both locations and you'll be able to get your hands on it and see and touch this amazing technology it's really going to blow your mind.

So thank you Sini, thank you Tuomas, I really appreciate you - welcome to podcast land.

Thank you Judy, it's very exciting.

It's been a delight to have you and thank you - because I know you guys are - our hours between here and Finland are a little different. So thank you for accommodating our time frame today.

So thank you again for listening to the OnTrack Podcast, we appreciate you so very much. Join us again next time. Until then remember to always stay on track!


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*This communication may contain forward-looking statements about strategies, products, future results, performance or achievements, financial and otherwise. These statements reflect management’s current expectations, estimates, and assumptions based on the information currently available to us. These forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve significant risks, uncertainties and other factors that may cause our actual results, performance or achievements to be materially different from results, performance or achievements expressed or implied by the forward-looking statements contained in this communication, such as a failure to add previewed functionality to our products or the potential impact on our financial results from changes in our business models.


About Author

About Author

Judy Warner has held a unique variety of roles in the electronics industry for over 25 years. She has a background in PCB Manufacturing, RF and Microwave PCBs and Contract Manufacturing, focusing on Mil/Aero applications. 

She has also been a writer, blogger, and journalist for several industry publications such as Microwave Journal, PCB007 Magazine, PCB Design007, PCD&F, and IEEE Microwave Magazine, and an active board member for PCEA (Printed Circuit Engineering Association). In 2017, Warner joined Altium as the Director of Community Engagement. In addition to hosting the OnTrack Podcast and creating the OnTrack Newsletter, she launched Altium's annual user conference, AltiumLive. Warner's passion is to provide resources, support, and advocate for PCB Design Engineers worldwide.

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