IoT Hardware Boards and Platforms Are Becoming Flexible

Created: August 9, 2017
Updated: June 24, 2023

Arduino on a white background

Do you remember all the fads and obsessions you had when you were a kid? When I was younger everyone was going crazy for Pokemon and whatever electronic gadgets they could get their hands on. These two crazes eventually combined into one ultimate trend, the Tamagotchi. It was a huge hit, building on the portable electronic fever and children’s love of tiny unrealistic animals. Recently two fads in the PCB world have combined, flexible electronics and the Internet of Things (IoT). Hardware platforms like do it yourself development boards helped give birth to the IoT, and flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) are going to help bring it into adolescence. Engineers are beginning to design flexible boards and peripherals that are compatible with big brands like Arduino. You join the frenzy by designing easy to use boards with components that IoT developers need.

Advantages of Flexible Hardware Platforms

Fully flexible and rigid flex PCBs have long been confined to high tech industries like aerospace, where they help Rovers make it to other planets. Now, though, their advantages are being brought back down to Earth in development boards and their peripherals. Flexible hybrid electronics combine the low cost and performance of traditional electronics with the space and form factor advantages of flexible circuits.

While some entities are dreaming of a fully flexible future, currently we have to settle for a hybrid. Flexible hybrid electronics mount traditional components on flexible substrates. Traditional electronic components have been highly optimized over the years for cost, speed, and power consumption. While there are some flexible analogs, their performance pales in comparison. We’re also more familiar with tried and true chips, which makes them easier to use in devices.

Rigid PCBs, though, have many flaws. The main ones being their tendency to break instead of bend, their size, and their inability to handle dynamic forces. Mounting components on a flexible substrate helps with all these problems. Obviously FHE are made to bend, in fact some can bend up to 200,000 times before failing. In addition to reliability, bendable boards have smaller form factors and can be folded to fit into spaces no normal PCB could go.

Flex PCB
Flexible circuits are the future.

FHE, the IoT, and Arduino

These advantages make FHE an excellent choice for the IoT. The IoT is going to give birth to billions of devices by 2020. Many of these are going to be sensor based networks that operate in nooks and crannies to monitor infrastructure. Those devices are going to need to have unique form factors that will allow them to fit everywhere they need to go. Not only with these gadgets need to be small, they’ll need to be simple. No one has time to individually design billions of devices, that’s where Arduino comes in.

Arduino has long been a household name when it comes to development boards and do it yourself type electronics. At first, their boards seemed to just be for hobbyists, but they carry a lot of opportunity for commercial applications. That’s why several companies are now developing FHE Arduino compatible boards and peripherals. Seeed is one company that has put out a prototype board. With this proof of concept PCB, they aimed to see how small they could shrink an Arduino type board. Another company working in this space is Printoo. They’re developing a whole range of Arduino compatible platforms that target the IoT market. You should expect to see other companies and designers try their hand at shrinking and bending Arduino boards in the near future.

Wireless communication amount cars
Even cars will become part of the IoT.

Your Piece of the Pie

Why shouldn’t one of those designers be you? The open source hardware market was estimated to be worth $1 billion in 2015, and will only grow with the rising tide of the IoT. If you want to capture part of this market and its designers you need to design boards and peripherals that are simple, familiar, and useful.

While I do enjoy learning new things, I don’t enjoy delving into a novel technology every project. That’s one of the keys to Arduino’s success, and it will be important for yours as well. If you want to design your own general hardware platforms for the IoT make them compatible with existing systems that people already use. Make sure users can program your board with commonly integrated development environments (IDEs) that they already use: Arduino, Cloud9, BlueJ, Geany IDE, etc. Tap into the open source development board markets that are already established and filled with designers.

Not only does your board need to feel familiar, it also needs to be useful. You should think about what kinds of products are on the horizon for the IoT. I can give you a few hints. Wearables are obviously on the rise, even for senior citizens, and need good flexible solutions in order to meet form factor requirements. Low power wide area networks will need hundreds of tiny, low power sensors, to gather data. Cars are also an unexpected extension of the IoT. They need small, lightweight, sensors and boards in order to meet body and weight requirements. Vehicles will be communicating with everything around them as well, from infrastructure to pedestrians. Every piece of that puzzle will require easy to integrate boards and peripherals.

The race has already begun for the Internet of Things, and flexible technology is entering the fray. Arduino has long been a contender in the IoT and now smart companies are starting to combine the two. You could be in on the ground level as well if you can design boards that mesh well with existing technology and meet the needs of IoT applications.

There’s only one problem, how do you design flexible boards? FHE is a fairly new technology and isn’t familiar to most designers. Lucky for you Altium Designer® knows how to deal with both flexible and rigid flex circuits. It’s flush with great tools that can help you in design and can even create a 3D model of your circuit to make sure it fits enclosures.

Have more questions about flexible circuits? Call an expert at Altium.

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