FlexTech Alliance To Manage $75M Defense Institute for Tech Manufacturing

California research consortium FlexTech Alliance announced today it has landed a $75 million U.S. Department of Defense contract that makes it the organizational hub for a sweeping government effort to advance American manufacturing capabilities for flexible products like clothing that are enhanced with electronic sensors and processing power.

The Defense Department will funnel research contracts on a “dream list” of items—such as combat uniforms that can detect dehydration in soldiers—through FlexTech Alliance, which will prioritize and distribute tasks to a broad network of universities, labs, and companies. But work on the DoD projects will also help build up manufacturing assets that can be deployed to produce civilian products that will expand the realm of the Internet of Things, such as connected home devices and wearables.

The five-year contract is part of a much broader Obama administration initiative to establish U.S. leadership in high-tech manufacturing. Under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation program, seven Manufacturing Innovation Institutes have now been created to tackle manufacturing challenges, including a center in Detroit, MI for lightweight metals; another in New York for integrated photonics; and one in Raleigh, NC for wide bandgap semiconductors. Five of the seven institutes are managed by the Defense Department. Dozens more of the centers may be formed.

Through its successful proposal, San Jose-based FlexTech Alliance was awarded management of the newest of the seven units—the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The new center is the first created on the West Coast, where six more may be located. As an industry organization, the alliance has already been facilitating the transition of research discoveries to commercialization.

Companies and labs across the nation have made prototype inventions that incorporate data collection, processing, and communication components into flexible materials such as fabrics, metal foils, paper, and thin glass. The new institute will coordinate teams to figure out how to manufacture reliable products from those technology components. Potential uses range across many fields, from consumer electronics to health care, transportation, communications, and agriculture.

The “hybrid” in the institute’s name stands for the pairing of technologies at two different scales. The first element is the processing power that the computer industry has been very good at miniaturizing. The second includes sensor components that can be embedded across large surfaces such as shirts or walls—in textiles, coating films, lightweight metals, and other materials. To combine those elements, the institute will draw on the expertise of sectors including the integrated circuit industry, the graphics printing industry, and the electronic assembly and packaging industry.

In its proposal to the government, the FlexTech Alliance envisioned an interstate network of 96 companies, 11 laboratories and non-profits, 42 universities, and 14 state and regional organizations. Organizations in California and 12 other states are already on board with the idea. Among the willing participants are SRI International in Menlo Park, CA; PARC, a Xerox unit in Palo Alto, CA; UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC San Diego, and other University of California campuses; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

San Jose-based Bestronics will host a prototype demonstration and small-scale manufacturing facility where researchers will develop testing methods for new products, says FlexTech Alliance spokeswoman Heidi Hoffman.

Teams that work under the Defense Department grants will be expected to contribute matching funds. More than $96 million has been committed to the overall effort by non-federal sources, including the city of San Jose and several states, private companies, universities, and non-profit organizations.

Officials with San Jose and the state of California see the manufacturing institute as a workforce development opportunity, Hoffman says. As part of its management of the institute, FlexTech Alliance will help develop training programs in flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing for California students and military veterans at community colleges, universities, and other sites. San Jose State University and MIT are part of a group developing the curriculum, Hoffman says.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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