A New Manufacturing Approach for Flexible Hybrid Electronics

Flexible hybrid electronics is largely seen as an ideal means to merge the qualities of flexible, printed and traditional electronics for future uses. While the Pick and Place has been a common method of production till now, they do carry limitations. But now, a company, systeMECH Inc, developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison professors, Dr. David Grierson and Prof. Kevin Turner, has presented a new alternative production method for the same. The company has developed a novel layer-transfer technology and tool, called the Direct-die Placement Process (DDP), for manufacturing next-generation flexible electronic and photonic systems through the direct transfer of high-performance materials and devices to flexible and soft substrates.

The Direct-die Placement Process (DDP) is a process by which thin semiconductor components, such as silicon dies, are transferred directly from a source carrier (e.g., a source wafer, dicing tape, or a die pack) to a destination substrate in a single step. In contrast to conventional pick-and-place (PnP) tools that require a ‘pick’ step and a ‘place’ step for component placement, DDP allows components to be transferred to flexible substrates in a single ‘place’ step.”

According to Dr. Grierson, the core concept upon which systeMECH’s DDP technology is based was first conceived when he was a postdoctoral researcher within Prof. Turner’s Lab, which at the time was located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (now at the University of Pennsylvania). During that period, they were investigating the mechanics of stamp-based PnP approaches for transfer printing ultra-thin, single-crystal semiconductors onto a wide variety of destination substrates in order to fabricate advanced electronic and photonic devices. Recognizing that printing yields for thin components can decrease with decreasing component thickness, largely due to preferential adhesion of the component to the stamp during the ‘place’ step of the pick-and-place process, a simple question was asked – can the ‘pick’ step bypassed and re-engineer the transfer-printing process to only include a ‘place’ step ?

In other words, can a system be designed whereby the tiny, fragile components are adhered directly and permanently onto the destination substrate itself, without needing to pick them up and subsequently drop them off? The professors determined that not only was this possible, but other significant benefits follow from a manufacturing approach that eliminates the need to make direct mechanical contact to fragile and/or geometrically complex components during assembly. Hence the first concept for what would evolve into DDP was born.

Dr. Grierson noted that the printed and flexible electronics manufacturing equipment market, a segment of the Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) industry, is the target market for DDP technology. The market is large and rapidly growing in order to respond to the pull from markets including wearables, medical devices, and product packaging. FHE (flexible hybrid electronics) development is fueled by the need to mass produce devices for which performance is of the highest value and reliability is critical - i.e., the full operation of flexible, inorganic semiconductor-based electronics is required. Scalable solutions for placement and integration of thin and ultra-thin high-performance ICs onto flexible backings are central for realizing the full potential of such components at high production rates.

On the application side of development, the key challenge has been identifying an emerging, growing manufacturing ecosystem to which systeMECH’s technology and accompanying processes can contribute. As a part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Phase I Small Technology Transfer Innovation Research (STTR) program, systeMECH participated in the ‘Beat-the-Odds Boot Camp,’ which provides Phase I awardees with entrepreneurial training, including strong encouragement for company co-founders to get out of the building and interact with a large number of decision makers and end users of the technology being developed. As a result of that NSF Boot Camp, they pitched their DDP technology at a number of meetings and technical conferences, including the 2017 FLEX conference last June.

It was through the FLEX conference that they made direct connections with members of the NextFlex consortium on FHE manufacturing. With the NextFlex technology hub being at the forefront of FHE device manufacturing within the U.S., they have found an ecosystem that is both actively solving manufacturing challenges that the technology can help to address and is open to new, innovative solutions. systeMECH have installed a DDP prototype tool within the clean room at NextFlex and are actively participating in pilot studies to prove the technology within a vibrant manufacturing environment.

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