It has long been our position that health tech wearables won’t really take off until they “disappear” into our lives. By this, we mean that they must not be obtrusive or require a lot of the wearer’s attention. As it turns out, we share that vision with NetFlex, a private/public consortium of U.S. electronics companies, academic institutions, non-profits, and government partners. The group’s aim is to advance the printing of flexible electronics.

Flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) is a rapidly expanding field that holds great promise, and not just in health applications. Printed electronics are great for flexible conductors that can bend and stretch, but at this point, you still need rigid semiconductor chips to perform any significant processing. NetFlex has developed ways to use silicon chips that have been thinned to just 50 microns thick, and then incorporate them with printed circuitry without the need for the traditional, bulky packaging. The result is a flexible, stretchable platform that can support sensors, processors, and communications devices.

Using a process similar to 3D printers, they can build up complex circuits and devices using equipment that does not even require a clean room. In fact, one of their printing devices is onboard the International Space Station. Working with partners, NetFlex has developed ways to incorporate the Qi-standard wireless charging technology. They can also print batteries for on-board energy storage.

By eliminating the packaging process for silicon processors, and by making it easier to incorporate integrated circuits into flexible devices, NetFlex is able to speed the process from wafer to final product. This new process could accelerate the development of new health tech wearables that are thinner and lighter, and that demand less attention from the user. This could truly help wearables disappear.