Flex Workshop Update With Joe Fjelstad and Anaya Vardya

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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_fjelstad100.jpgJoe 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.jpgAnaya 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.


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