Differentiate Your White Goods Using In-Mold Electronics

Conformal electronics differentiate products by improving the appearance, functionality and overall user experience.

Takeaways

  • Consumers increasingly expect white goods to offer the same functionalities and user experience as their personal electronics.
  • Stretchable and flexible, in-mold electronics (IMEs) enable the fabrication of robust electronics in new form factors.
  • IMEs, combined with programmable system-on-chip (PSoC) devices enable white goods to have sleeker, more user-friendly interfaces.

 

The future of white goods is all about embedded materials and touch features. In our recent teardowns of an assortment of white goods and smart home appliances, we see a growing opportunity to integrate many features that are associated with personal communications and wearable devices.1

 

One of the most venerable components in electronics today is the printed circuit board (PCB). Since 1943, the PCB has been the foundation for electronics.2 The boards started out quite simple but as the complexity of consumer devices increased, so, too, did that of the PCB, expanding vertically to large number of layers (see figure 1).

 

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Figure 1: Modern PCBs have grown quite complex, as demonstrated by this 10-layer version used in theApple iPad Air 2.

 

As a material required in nearly all electronics, the PCB has several advantages including its ability to connect discrete components without bulky, labor-intensive wiring; fitting circuitry into a smaller footprint with increased reliability, improved high-speed signal integrity, etc. In fact, most products, whether on FR4, metal, ceramic or glass substrates, contain a PCB. And while the boards come in all sizes, they – by their very nature – create design restrictions for manufacturers that are passed down to the customer and shape the user experience. As a company that does numerous teardowns, we are starting to see the need for cheaper, flexible substrates that can allow a certain amount of electronics to exist within a confined curve, rather than a form dictated by a PCB.

 

The rise of in-mold electronics

In the early days, nobody really worried that electronics tended to be boxy and functional. As electronics have become part of everyday life, however, expectations have changed. Today, consumers assume that anything with power (automotive surfaces, appliances, household switches, etc.) will deliver innovative and creative design. More designers and manufacturers are challenging conventional thinking. In response, material companies like DuPont have begun offering new substrate solutions that stretch or can be thermoformed to meet their design requirements.

 

As circuitry becomes smaller and electronic content proliferates, designs require new form factors. To accomplish this, material needs to become smart and functional. The ability to embed electronics into formed and injection molded parts has led to the development of in-mold electronics (IME). Two of the main drivers for this change are the push for smaller, less bulky devices and the increasing comfort of consumers with touch surfaces. And now the cost of implementing this technology has dropped significantly based on new designs and techniques.

 

At teardown.com we recently compared IME-based solutions to traditional legacy PCB designs in the appliance market. Appliance fascia have traditionally relied on knobs, buttons and switches connected to clunky capacitors, resistors and 8-bit processors. Considered in the context of the design changes of IME, it suddenly became apparent that the features and functions of modern-day tablets, phones and computers could easily cascade into the more mundane, but important electronics we take for granted. Devices like refrigerators, washers, dryers and household control panels could be further designed into the way we live, rather than as big, white boxes hidden in a corner or basement (see figure 2). Moreover, the ability of designers to reshape common goods from the kitchen to the car to even the bathroom can allow for greater enhancements to creature comforts across our living space.

 

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Figure 2: In-mold electronics allow designers to realize more sophisticated, comfortable and even more economical designs (Courtesy of DuPont).

 

IME + ICs = white goods

When we see companies creating these materials it is the nature of our business, and quite frankly our curiosity, to see what integrated circuit companies are investing in this area as well. One such company is Cypress Semiconductor with its lineup of CapSense capacitive touch-sensing controllers and PSoC programmable system-on-chip devices with CapSense functionality. These types of devices provide embedded designers with easy ways to add capabilities to products and more easily differentiate themselves from the competition.

 

As costing electronics and materials is our bread and butter, it is worth noting that while IME will likely play a larger role in the future, it may as not always be a less expensive option. As electronics are further integrated into the actual materials, replacing them means replacing the whole subsystem that is on the board. Yet, this isn’t that different than what currently goes on when your computer or refrigerator fails. The PCB is a very well-understood and trusted technology. As such we expect it will continue to provide a platform for many services. But if a manufacture is looking to integrate touch in an efficient and ergonomically designed manner, it is more and more likely that they’ll be looking at IME technology.

 

In some applications, IMEs will have both a design and potentially a cost benefit. With the ability to be created during manufacturing using processes such as thermoforming and injection molding, IME technology can support the realization of consoles with a single connection point and no wires behind. Little advantages like this can reduce weight and give designers the freedom to create more radical and functional designs. Removing the separate buttons can reduces cost, as removing traditional physical electronic components can further improve savings.

 

References

  1. At teardown.com, our team looks at over 400 devices a year, analyzing how they are made and delving into the technology choices and cost considerations that were made to bring them to market. We put products from brands like Apple, Samsung, Honeywell, and Nest under the microscopes to better enable an understanding of technology evolution and its alignment to the features users demand.
  2. "The history of the PCB," Advanced Circuits

 

Also in this issue:

Accelerate product development with Bluetooth® low energy modules

AS-MCUs bring TFT HMIs to cost-sensitive home appliances

Bus Analyzer uncovers root cause of failure in flash-enabled systems

How to implement liquid-level measurement using capacitive sensing technology

Prequalified APIs and software keep white goods safe

PSoC controllers speed design of smart home appliances

RCCA turns failures into future success

Answers to your data-retention specs and testing questions

 

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