Flexible Future: The Industries That Are Forcing You To Learn Rigid Flex PCB Design

Created: April 26, 2017
Updated: November 12, 2020

Do you ever feel like time is a passing a little more quickly than it should? It seems like just yesterday I was growling in frustration as I learned how to use dial-up internet. Now I growl in frustration as I attempt to figure out how to set up my state-of-the-art broadband router. It seems like as soon as I master the current technology, it’s time for the next big thing and I have to start all over again.

Well my PCB friends, it’s time for you to learn the next big thing in PCB design: flex and rigid flex. In the fast growing world of PCBs, flexible PCBs are growing the fastest. The Internet of Things (IoT), wearable electronics, and flexible displays are all pushing the industry towards flexible and rigid flex PCBs. That means it’s time for you to roll your eyes, let out a sigh, and start to learn the design principles for the next generation of PCBs.

Flexible PCBs Are Growing Quickly

Learning new design techniques hurts, but money can help ease the pain. The global PCB market is growing, with some studies estimating the market will grow to $73.8 billion in 2021 from $63.5 billion in 2016. A large portion of this growth is expected to be from flexible PCBs. Some reports project flexible PCBs to grow to $15.2 billion by 2020 and $27 billion by 2022. I may not give a hoot about next gen PCBs, but I will holler for a dollar. Flexible PCBs are already outpacing rigid PCBs. In 2014 rigid PCB sales decreased slightly, while flexible PCB sales increased. Adapt or die is the law of nature and of the PCB design world. If you stay in the past with only rigid designs, you’ll get left behind.

Industries Pushing Flexible PCBs

It’s one thing to observe that flexible PCBs are growing, and another to know which industries are pushing that trend. Currently, the Internet of Things and wearable electronics are largely responsible for flexible PCB growth. I believe that flexible displays will become another catalyst in the near future.

Digital camera without front and back case
Digital cameras are already using lots of flexible PCBs

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is one electronics industry that is on the cusp of explosive growth. This growth means you’ll soon be designing a lot more PCBs for IoT devices. Many of these new IoT PCBs will need to be flexible PCBs.

Take “smart” LED strip lighting for example. LED strip lighting needs to be flexible along its length so that people can bend it into whatever shape they need. Eventually, people will want things like smart towels that tell you if your hair is dry, or connected tissues that send people alerts to say “bless you.” By their nature, these kinds of devices will require flexible PCBs.

Flexible PCBs can also be used to fit small 3D form factors. 3D printed PCBs are still on the horizon, so you have to get a bit creative to fill those awkward spaces. Rigid flex designs can let you fold your boards into rectangles, cubes, or octahedrons, and fit them into spaces where a flat board just wouldn’t do. You may have to learn origami as well as rigid flex design.

Flex printed circuit
In the future, most PCBs might end up looking like this.

Wearable Devices

I know you love PCBs so much you would wear them if you could. Well, today is your lucky day. Wearable electronic devices are on the rise, with sales expected to reach $30.6 billion by 2020. That much money could buy you a whole PCB wardrobe.

Wearable electronics are often embedded into clothes, and therefore need to be flexible. Sensoria’s smart socks, for example, have sensors and a chip embedded in the fabric of a sock. Your socks and this idea may stink, but you’ll just have to hold your nose and take the plunge. Wearable devices like this that require flexible PCBs are everywhere. From belts to baby hats our clothing is fast becoming connected, and most of it will need flexible PCBs.

Some wearable PCBs, like the one on the Shockbox, will need to be flexible in order to resist shock and vibration. Shockbox makes sensors that can be integrated into sports helmets. These sensors are supposed to reduce risk of concussion by providing parents and coaches data on head impact forces. To measure force the sensors must experience force. As rigid PCBs are much more likely to crack when experiencing dynamic forces these kinds of devices will need flexible PCBs.

Flexible Displays

You’ve probably heard about flexible displays, but have never seen one. I’ve heard you can find them at the end of a rainbow next to a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. I recently found out that flexible screens actually do exist, they’re just not in use yet. Once manufacturing costs come down, flexible screens will make their way into our devices. If the screen is flexible, everything else will have to be bendable as well. The waking nightmare that is a fully flexible PCB design for handheld is electronics is on its way.

If you thought your days of studying ended in college, you were wrong. The Internet of Things, wearable electronics, and flexible displays will force you to learn flex and rigid flex PCB design. So grab a pot of coffee and get ready to burn the midnight oil preparing for the future.

If you’re going to be designing the next generation of rigid flex PCBs you’ll need software that is as futuristic as smart socks. Altium Designer® has been pioneering 3D PCB design software to help designers like you master rigid flex design.

Need someone to commiserate with about learning new design techniques? Call an expert at Altium.

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