From liquid lenses to e-textiles, flexible technologies are poised to have a significant impact on the electronics industry. From academic research into adaptive eyeglasses to market research on e-textile applications, the future looks bright.

On the academic front, engineers funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) have developed glasses with liquid-based lenses that “flex” to refocus on whatever the wearer is viewing. A University of Utah team led by electrical and computer engineering professor Carlos H. Mastrangelo, Ph.D., and his doctoral student Nazmul Hasan developed the adjustable “smart glasses.”

Adaptive liquid lens (left) and prototype containing electrical components, mechanical actuators, infrared sensor, rechargeable batteries, and Bluetooth capability (right) Source: Carlos H. Mastrangelo, University of Utah College of Engineering

The glasses include lenses made of glycerin sandwiched between flexible membranes that are, in turn, controlled by a piezoelectric actuation mechanism. The researchers describe their implementation as a “… compact tunable-focus liquid lens suitable for adaptive eyeglass application. The lens has an aperture diameter of 32 mm, an optical power range of 5.6 diopter, and electrical power consumption of less than 20 mW. The lens inclusive of its piezoelectric actuation mechanism is 8.4-mm thick and weighs 14.4 g. The measured lens rms wavefront aberration error was between 0.73 µm and 0.956 µm.”1

“The glasses incorporate an impressive array of electrical, mechanical, optical, sensor, and computer technologies with the goal of developing a one-size-fits-all approach to vision correction,” said Andrew Weitz, Ph.D., NIBIB program director, whose expertise includes bioelectronic vision technologies, in a press release.

“Theoretically, these would be the only glasses a person would ever have to buy because they can correct the majority of focusing problems,” added Mastrangelo. “Users just have to input their new prescription as their eyesight changes.”

The researchers acknowledge that the current prototype is on the bulky side (pictured). However, the research team is working to make the glasses smaller and lighter, and a startup company is moving toward making the glasses commercially available in about three years.

E-textile markets

With regard to e-textiles, IDTechEx Research has found that over the past 20 years, e-textiles have progressed from an academic curiosity to an important technology platform generating revenue for companies globally. The market research firm found that the market has grown to around $100 million in annual wholesale revenue from e-textile products today and will reach an estimated $5 billion by 2027, as described in a new report.

The report lists a total of 31 product types arranged in 13 areas across six vertical market sectors. The firm says that perhaps the most prominent products are the types of compression apparel that introduce sensing (including heart rate, respiration, motion, ECG, and EMG), that provide heating or cooling, and that apply current to muscles (TENS/EMS). However, the firm adds that the application landscape is diverse and extends from workwear, military, and fashion apparel to areas beyond apparel—including medical, industrial, and home textiles.

According to James Hayward, senior technology analyst, “We are in contact with textiles for up to 90% of our lives, and they are starting to become intelligent. The basis of this new functionality is the integration of textiles and electronics. From clothing to bandages, bed linen to industrial fabrics, new products integrating e-textiles are being created.”2

FHE projects

In an effort to drive flexible electronics into mainstream markets, NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Institute, announced in March that it has awarded a set of contracts involving 11 new projects totaling a $21 million to both corporations and academia to help transform FHE into a commercially viable industry. Recipients will cost-share $13 million of the total. The projects extend from “Flexible Antenna Array Technology” (Boeing and Georgia Tech) to “Integration Processes for Flexible and Wearable Wound Monitoring and Therapeutic Bandage” (UC Berkeley and Jabil Circuit).

Commenting on the project awards, Dr. Malcolm Thompson, executive director of NextFlex, noted in a press release, “We are beyond thrilled to have reached this degree of momentum in less than two years since the institute was founded. This latest $21-million-dollar investment, which is the largest of its kind to date … further demonstrates we mean business in bringing this technology rapidly to market. Our members equally share our passion for making FHE technology real and pervasive in the United States. To this end, our project reviewers look closely at the submissions to ensure the proposals are ambitious, yet also practical and achievable.”

 


References

  1. Hasan, N., et al., “Tunable-focus lens for adaptive eyeglasses,” Optics Express, OSA Publishing, 2017.
  2. Hayward, J., E-Textiles 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets, Players, IDTechX Research, February 2017.
The future of electronics is flexible
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Rick Nelson
Rick became Executive Editor for EE in 2011. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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