Flex Workshop Update With Joe Fjelstad and Anaya Vardya
When Anaya Vardya, president and CEO of American Standard Circuits, heard that Joe Fjelstad, founder and CEO of Verdant Electronics, was releasing an updated version of his flexible circuit technology workshop, he knew ASC had to be a sponsor. We recently asked Joe and Anaya to discuss the flexible circuit technology workshop, as well as the ongoing need for flex and rigid-flex training—even in the time of COVID-19—as the demand for flex continues to rise.
Andy Shaughnessy: I’m here today with Anaya Vardya and Joe Fjelstad. Both of you are big players in flex, and you've both written books about flex. Joe, can you give us a quick history on your flex technology workshop?
Joe Fjelstad: Thanks for your interest. I have to think back several years to when I was approached by Barry Matties, who said I-Connect007 would like to record my flex circuit workshop. I thought, "That's a really great idea.” It’s a good opportunity to share what I know with people on their schedule and not on mine, avoiding spending time driving to at the airport, getting on an aluminum tube, and transporting ourselves across the nation to sit down together and share a room when really what we're interested in is sharing the information. We all have colleagues in the industry who still do live seminars when circumstances allow, but it looks like we've entered a new age. Who knew when we did this that it was going to become a model for the way information gets transmitted, especially in this age of COVID-19?
The key is to be able to provide the information in a timely manner and put it into bite-sized chunks, so people don't have to sit for hours. They can listen and then listen again to whatever information is of interest to them. What we didn't have as a part of the earlier version of this series was the ability to do some interaction with questions and answers, and the hope is that now we'll be able to gather and field questions from the attendees. I'm delighted that Anaya has decided to step in and be a participant in this program as we move forward. I'm sure Anaya has some thoughts he'd like to share.
Anaya Vardya: We are very excited to partner with Joe and I-Connect007 on this endeavor to really educate the world, so to speak, on flex and rigid-flex printed circuits. From our experience over the last few years, what we've seen as a PCB fabricator is that the demand for this product has really started to go up.
A lot of people have been designing rigid boards for many, many years. Unfortunately, there are a lot of rules in the rigid world that don't translate over into the flex and rigid-flex world, and clearly, there are a lot more things that one needs to pay attention to.
For years, we have been trying to educate our customers on the different nuances associated with the flex and rigid-flex world. We published a book on the subject with I-Connect007, The Printed Circuit Designer’s Guide to…Flex and Rigid-Flex Fundamentals, where we touch on some key highlights associated with this area. We've also done a few of our own webinars, but when we discussed this with Joe and talked about doing a very detailed in-depth workshop on flex and rigid-flex, we were very excited.
In the world of COVID-19, we have all migrated to new ways to communicate and share information with our customers without actually being able to travel to see them in person. This is the new mode of communication that we've all come up with, and we thought it was really critical to do this.
One of the things that we've seen with customers that we interact with—especially starting at the design phase, or even sometimes before they get started designing—is we've had a lot more success and projects tend to go a lot smoother when they're actually working with their PCB fabricator, particularly somebody that is fairly knowledgeable and has experiences from a wide variety of customers and a wide variety of different combinations.
One of the interesting things about flex and rigid-flex is because they are a three-dimensional circuit, it really is up to somebody's imagination of what they're trying to do. That's where we come in. We can really help with getting a good foundation in place so that it is a lot easier for customers to design what they're looking for. Joe and I have known each other for many years. We've collaborated on some other projects, and we thought it was great to be able to work together on getting this information to the design community.
Shaughnessy: This is really good timing. We see a lot of new flex designers who have 30 years of experience doing rigid boards, and all of a sudden, they have to learn how to do flex.
Fjelstad: Agreed. Also, in the last five years or so, we’ve seen the advent of the consortium Flex Tech Alliance and NextFlex, which was funded to the tune of like $75 million by the U.S. government and from material suppliers. This is part of a rebranding effort to bring additional interest to flexible circuit technology by calling it flexible electronics and/or flex hybrid electronics. Much of the content that they're promoting is covered in this flex circuit seminar. The hope is that maybe they might find it useful to provide some linkages to their clients and customers as well.
NextFlex is located in San Jose, and they've been doing some very interesting promotion of flexible and stretchable electronics and looking for new applications. They're doing a lot of educating and reaching out to colleges and—in some cases—high schools in the local area to try and get students to appreciate and then hopefully embrace flexible circuit technology for what it can do. We're all on the same side in that regard. The hope is that if we work together, we build and increase the size of the pie rather than trying to carve out market share. The rising tide lifts all boats, as the old saw goes. Hopefully, we'll see some of that as well spin-out from this.
Shaughnessy: We see a big increase just in the last 10 years or so of flex. Flex was kind of a boutique thing up until not too long ago, and now it's everywhere—especially in almost all handheld devices. Anaya, you said you have had a big increase in flex business.
Vardya: Yes, we've definitely seen a huge increase in flex business over the last two to three years. We've had existing customers of ours that had been doing rigid boards for years who are now starting to come to us with flex and rigid-flex boards. We've also managed to grab a lot of new customers that come to us because the number of companies that can do flex and rigid-flex well at reasonable lead times is very small. We see a lot of opportunities that way, but that market space is clearly growing. As you said, flex is becoming less “boutiquey,” so to speak, and starting to become more mainstream. For a long time, at least in the U.S., you would see it primarily in military products, but it's starting to fan out into a lot of other market segments now.
Fjelstad: Certainly. As I've found myself saying in a lot of my seminars, a lot of inventions are born in the forage of war. The military-type product tends to lead. The DoD funds the NextFlex activity. The DoD and DARPA have been the underwriters of a lot of innovation, beginning with early semiconductor technology. They seem to have once more tried to bring attention to this flexible circuit technology, which is, again, ubiquitous. Flexible circuit technology is no longer in a corner. It's burst out.
Vardya: I would say that cellphones are probably one of the big drivers.
Fjelstad: Absolutely. Phones wouldn't be as small as they are without flexible circuit technology. They serve a boatload of functions in terms of their roles. It's a fun time to be involved in flexible circuits as it's really starting to hit its stride. The hope for this seminar and American Standard is to help to fulfill some of the ideas and dreams that people are going to come up with for this technology, and all the advantages that it brings with it.
Shaughnessy: What would you like the readers to know about this workshop? What really stands out?
Fjelstad: I've had the great pleasure and good fortune of knowing Clyde Coombs the originator and editor of The Printed Circuit Handbook. In that regard, I recall seeing a bootleg Russian language edition in the printed circuit lab where I worked there when I was there in the early 1990s. The book was first published in 1967 is now into its fifth decade and its seventh edition. That aside, in talking with Clyde one time about his handbook, he observed that most of the time, about 80% of the information of the previous editions was still useful, even though there were several years or more between editions. Thus, the seminar content still holds valuable information. What I’m attempting to do is to provide a sort of an annex for each of the sections, which are 20–25 minutes long. In each annex, we're going to add some new information about some of the changes that have taken place since the last workshop to provide an update.
I often say that when I started in the printed circuit industry in 1971, if someone had teleported me to a circuit board shop of today, I would recognize almost everything, but I would be really fascinated with the technological advances in terms of the tools and processes. The fundamentals haven’t changed, but the technologies have improved substantially. As I say, we're on the cusp of being able to take the equivalent of an Escher drawing and turn it into a 3D representation with flexible circuits, and that makes it a lot of fun.
Vardya: Joe has done a really good job of articulating a lot of the nuances in the flex and rigid-flex world. The important takeaway at the end of the day is that this is a neat technology. It has a lot of different uses. It is really important, and I want to keep emphasizing that a designer work with a PCB fabricator who is good at manufacturing flex and rigid-flex and has some level of expertise right from the design phase to make sure that you ultimately adopt the right solution because there are a lot of things that can impact costs. The design of every circuit is ultimately the key determining factor in the cost structure associated with the product. Partnering with somebody who can turn your concept and your ideas into reality will help ensure long-term success.
Fjelstad: I'd like to echo Anaya on that. I wrote one of my “Flexible Thinking” columns not too long ago about the importance of designing with manufacturing, not designing for manufacturing. It’s the notion of creating a relationship with your vendors so that you have the ability to intimately understand the manufacturing processes; then, you can step around having to iterate because you missed something here or there or some of the call-outs were just not going to be usable.
The other thing that I would like to come back and emphasize one more time is that, as a part of this online series, you should take the opportunity to ask questions of Anaya and his team or me. He has a solid crew that can help people steer around the pitfalls and away from the cliffs that are going to take them over the edge or misalign your wheels. This is a cooperative effort. Nobody sets out to try to design something that's going to fail. Everything that you can do on the front end to avoid that is going to save time, energy, and money.
Shaughnessy: Very good. Is there anything that we haven't covered that either of you would like to mention?
Vardya: It's an exciting opportunity, and it will be great to see how many people actually end up watching it and taking advantage. It's a great workshop.
Fjelstad: That's the hope out of all of this. Again, the other training opportunities have essentially dried up. I gave live seminars for years, but I just thought there must be a better way. When Barry brought this idea to me, who knew that it was going to be so prescient, and it was going to be the way that things would be done in the future?
Shaughnessy: Thank you both for doing this.
Fjelstad: Sure. And thanks so much, Anaya, for stepping in on this one. This is really great.
Vardya: You're welcome. It was a pleasure, Joe. And thank you, Andy.
Click here to view the workshop sponsored by American Standard Circuits, a proud supporter of online education.