Express Circuits is a long-established PCB fabricator located in Coleshill, near Birmingham in the Midlands of England, specialising in quick-turn complex prototype and small- to medium-volume microvia multilayer and rigid-flex. With the benefit of associate companies focused on design and assembly, Express is recognised for its exemplary customer service and technical support, as well as for its innovative manufacturing solutions.
Back in the days when I considered myself something of an innovator in PCB technology, I had the pleasure of working with Vin Makwana, who for several years now has been technical manager at Express and with whom I have maintained occasional contact. Meeting Vin at a recent Institute of Circuit Technology Seminar, and knowing of his interest in the development of stretchable circuits, I asked for an update and he invited me to visit the Express factory to see for myself. So I had the opportunity to sit down with Vin and Operations Manager Mike Hill to talk about stretchable developments.
Pete Starkey: Vin, as work colleagues we go back the best part of 30 years, and I recognise you as one of the pioneers of microvia technology. But it was not until I met you at productronica 2011 that we had any serious conversation about stretchable circuits—although it was clear that you had already built an impressive history in that technology, and were exhibiting actual examples. Here we are nearly six years later. Give me an idea how far you have moved on in that time.
Vin Makwana: We’ve come a long way since that meeting at productronica. We have attended dedicated exhibitions for wearable technology in San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, and Miami, Florida, and formed working relationships with several potential customers. One of these is based in Europe, and we have just completed a two-year Eurostars project with them, which Mike will tell you about.
Mike Hill: The project was co-funded by the EU Horizon 2020 Framework programme and InnovateUK. We have been cooperating with a Spanish company based in Barcelona, Sensing Tex, who develop and commercialise smart textiles. They primarily work with fibre optic materials and wanted to develop pressure-sensor mapping through stretchable technology for truly-wearable-tech. The project basically involved us bringing in stretchable product and working with them to integrate it into clothing for mapping posture and movement.
Starkey: Was this for health-monitoring applications?
Hill: Yes, the project was based around a garment for measuring and monitoring the posture of patients with muscle imbalance and postural dysfunction problems. After proving the concept would work, the aim of the project was to produce a development kit which could be offered to a variety of markets for companies to incorporate into their own product. That could be sportswear, military, in fact any kind of truly-wearable-tech that needed some form of pressure sensor. Our primary involvement in the project was to develop the actual circuitry, but also to increase the capability of our stretchable product. By trialing different designs provided by Sensing Tex with different material types, we achieved a balance between material and meander design which enabled up to 50% stretch on their connectors. That project has now reached its conclusion and they are putting together final demonstration kits for marketing in Europe, and for us explore commercial opportunities.
Starkey: Can we talk about substrate materials? I understood from previous conversations that the key to your initial developments was your ability to make your own copper-clad substrate. Do you still have exclusive rights to it?
Makwana: Yes, although this particular customer found that the elastomer we use didn’t give the strength they were looking for. But they had been working with similar materials which met their specification, so that’s what we used in the project. This is ours, (he held up a sheet of rubbery transparent film, shown here) and they have a slightly different version of it.
Starkey: Can you disclose what it is?
Makwana: It’s actually an off-the-shelf thermoplastic polyurethane that we buy locally, although it’s not used elsewhere in the PCB industry. We can specify whatever thickness we want, but we typically use 50-micron and 100-micron.
Starkey: So the proprietary knowledge is in how you convert it into a copper-clad laminate?
Makwana: Yes, putting the copper on is the tricky part, but once we have made the material we can use standard PCB processes—drilling, metallising, imaging, plating, etching, etc—to fabricate stretchable circuits. We have a special press, and it’s our lay-up technique and press cycles that are confidential.
Starkey: Then your base layer is foil rather than an electroless deposit?
Makwana: Yes, it’s standard ED copper foil. We would prefer to use RA copper for our application, if we could get it, but it’s not readily available other than to the major flexible laminate manufacturers.
Starkey: So your process is basically part-subtractive rather than full-additive?
Makwana: Yes, we are able to drill and metallise our substrates with electroless copper, so we can make double-sided PTH, or even a 4-layer. We can bond it three times, although obviously, that reduces its stretchability, but we have certainly made stretchable 4-layers.
Starkey: So the polyurethane becomes its own adhesive if you’ve got the right press cycle; you’re effectively fusion-bonding.
Makwana: Yes, and our solder mask is also polyurethane—it’s effectively a coverlay—so we can maintain a homogeneous elastomeric construction.
Hill: And we have moved into the assembly of these units as well—in small quantities, a mixture of hand assembly and on-line assembly.
Starkey: Are you assembling active components, or just connectors and passives?