It’s Good to be Flexible
On the almost practical front, you’ve probably seen the flexible 3D printed dress created with a new, flexible material from Materialise (materialise.com). In the long-term, truly custom clothes might be a mouse-click away. In the nearer term, flexible 3D printing could be a game changer for the experimentalist — especially in the form of flexible circuit boards.
You’ve no doubt encountered flexible boards and flat ribbon connectors in some cameras. I have yet to see those flexible Li-Ion batteries for sale in quantities less than a few thousand pieces, but flexible solar panels, light panels, and conductive plastic sheet are available off the shelf.
For example, I’m having fun working with flexible — but not foldable — electroluminescent (EL) panels, ribbons, and wires available from Adafruit and SparkFun. It’s odd being able to trim the active area of the plasticphosphor material with a pair of scissors without harming the light output.
I’m also working with transparent conductive plastic sheets available from Adafruit. Although the indium tin oxide coating doesn’t accept solder, it does work with conductive adhesives, pens, and paints to attach components. It’s also possible to scrape away the coating to create flexible circuit board tracings.
Of course, if you’re a fan of wearable computing, you’ve no doubt worked with one of the wearable Arduino-compatible boards such as FLORA from Adafruit and the LilyPad from SparkFun. While the buttonsized boards are stiff conventional boards, they connect with the outside world through metal-infused thread that’s as flexible as ordinary cotton.
Need a string of LEDs that bend and flex as you do? No problem. Just use conductive cloth, ribbons, or thread to hook up your wearable flexible circuit. SparkFun also sells a fabric kit that uses conductive fabric ribbon to connect wearable LED modules for making billboard-style jackets and shirts. The conductive thread — like the modules — is supposedly immune to hand washing, but I haven’t put the claims to the test.
Flexibility seems poised to make a dent in the consumer electronics world, as well. There are persistent rumors of curved screen cell phones that can survive being sat on. Then there’s the curved face of the rumored Apple’s ‘Dick Tracy’ watch. Flexible displays made of materials (such as Corning’s Willow) are paving the way for flexible consumer devices. The benefit of these and other technologies to robotics will undoubtedly be a wealth of affordable flexible components that will enable anyone to experiment with flexible platform designs. SV