FlexFactor: Advanced Manufacturing and Entreprenuership

Take just a minute and read through this list of new product ideas.  Can you identify the common thread?  Yes, they are all enabled by advanced technology, but would you believe that these are all products that have been pitched in the last year by high school students?

 Drive Alert:

Problem – Drowsy driving.

Solution – A patch placed on the temple can detect if the user is drowsy and wakes the user up.

Technology – Circuits form a flexible patch with sensors detecting theta brain waves indicating if the user is drowsy or daydreaming.

Fast Asleep:

Problem – In 2015, there were nearly 4,000 Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUIDS) in the U.S. with 1,600 of those being attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  Because of this, 59% of working parents do not get enough sleep.

Solution – A small wristband fits snugly around baby’s arm while sleeping and measures movements, oxygen and heart rate to let you know the baby is safe and sound asleep.

Technology – Mounted flexible hybrid electronic wristband connected to device via Bluetooth.

RA Solutions:

Problem – RA is a chronic, inflammatory disease that causes mild to severe joint pain and stiffness, which can lead to a wide variety of damaged body systems including skin, eyes and lungs.

Solution – The Relieve Sleeve, a pain reliever that administers heating sensations and applies electric pulses tailored to a user’s needs.  The functions are embedded in a compression sleeve for easy application around joints and muscles.

Technology – Flexible battery, micro coiling embedded in the compression fabric, Bluetooth chip to connect to app, electrical pulses produced form thin wires, wireless charging hub for battery.

Asthmex

Problem – According to CDC, 25.7 million Americans suffer from asthma.  Between the years 1996–2012, 8% of Olympic athletes suffered from asthma.  11.8% of the 7.8 million high school athletes in the U.S. have asthma.

Solution – A chest band with a smart patch to detect asthma symptoms and triggers and administer medication via auto-injector.

Technology – Smart fibers within the band detect symptoms of an attack specific to the individual.

Just to reiterate, these creative new product ideas have all been pitched by high school students!  These students have all participated in the NextFlex, FlexFactor program. Growing the next generation advanced manufacturing workforce is a key component of the NextFlex mission of developing technologies for commercial adoption while supporting a sustainable manufacturing ecosystem.

What is FlexFactor?

This program is designed to enable youth to engage with next generation technology through entrepreneurial immersion. Over the course of this program, students work in teams to conceptualize a Flexible Hybrid Electronics, or FHE-based hardware device that solves a human health issue or performance monitoring program, develop a business model around the opportunity, and pitch “shark tank” style to a panel of industry representatives. In the process, students become immersed in advanced technology and entrepreneurship, are inspired by the advanced manufacturing industry segment, and gain a deeper understanding of the education and career pathways for the future.

This four-week program kicks off in the classroom where students break into teams, are given the mission, the building blocks of flexible hybrid technology, and have the opportunity to define the problem and research hypothesis. Throughout the program, students interact with assigned technical mentors as they develop their product idea. The next week students take a field trip to tour an advanced manufacturing facility which provides a deep dive into the world of hybrid and flexible technology and gives the students the opportunity to interact with manufacturers, technicians and engineers to get a sense of what is like to work in these environments. The third week is a field trip to a local community college where students sit in on two 90-minute entrepreneurship lectures and get to experience the feel of college life. The final week each team pitches their product idea, including target market analysis and cost vs. revenue projections, to industry experts. Through this program, each student is enrolled in the community college and receives college credit upon completion.

How much fun would that be! With enrollment skyrocketing, the program is obviously engaging students and sparking interest. Brynt Parmeter, director of Workforce Development at NextFlex, explained that the first session started in the fall of 2016 with eight students participating. Following its fourth session the spring of 2018, the program will have had over 2,000 participants. That is amazing growth and speaks volumes about the program.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jordan Tachibana, whose was part of the group responsible for the Asthmex product listed above.  Jordan had been taking business classes with a marketing major focus and was introduced to this program through a teacher describing the program as an entrepreunuership program with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing.  “Touring the advanced manufacturing facility is actually what inspired us the most because we got to see all the cool applications and kinds of technology.  That is really what sling-shoted my idea with my group.  After seeing the technology, we saw what was possible and said, let’s go.”  Jordan is continuing to pursue the Asthmex product and has enrolled in the program for a second time.

Through FlexFactor’s collaborative approach to education, entrepreneurship and technology, NextFlex is helping students identify and engage in career pathways in advanced manufacturing, while actively increasing the interest and talent in the U.S.-based STEAM pipeline. The FlexFactor program creates a win for all stakeholders. High schools are able to expose youth to real-world problems, blend STEAM and entrepreneurship in a project learning environment, and students further develop personal and professional skills. Community colleges are able to expand enrollment, create additional educational and career pathway opportunities, and link community college STEAM focus to a Manufacturing USA Institute. Government facilitates the creation of a nationally competitive talent pool prepared to tackle society-wide technology challenges, increase student awareness in STEAM occupations, motivate students to purse STEAM education, and provide students a government-sponsored activity that develops disciplinary based knowledge and promotes critical thinking, reasoning and communication skills. Our industry benefits by the expanded awareness and interest in advanced manufacturing, reduced hiring expenses via a direct channel to qualified resources for both internship and long-term workforce requirements, and increased community exposure through relationships with local high schools and community colleges.

A talent pipeline shortage is looming across all flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) manufacturing occupations. This was validated in a 2016 study for NextFlex[1] by the Workforce Intelligence Network.  This study reported tha 25% of the workforce in FHE is over 55 years old, while only 6% is under the age of 24, indicating a talent shortage that the industry will face as experienced workers retire. There is also enthusiasm in the industry to connect with students that are unsure of career opportunities in advanced manufacturing sectors and are unaware of new technologies now in development that will impact lives in meaningful ways. The FlexFactor program is working to bridge the gap, connect students and organizations, and bring excitement about advanced manufacturing to young people.

What’s not to be excited about: mouth guards that could detect an athlete’s hydration level; non-obstructive patches that could detect blood glucose levels for Type 1 diabetics; an allergen medication patch that would administer the exact amount of epinephrine needed based on inflammation detected in the blood; and a device that can detect the levels of leptin hormone to evaluate sleep quality. Yes, these and many more cool applications are coming from the FlexFactor list of products that have been pitched. If these ideas are generated from a four-week program, I am excited to see what these students will develop in the future, and have renewed faith in the future of our industry and the role that advanced manufacturing and flexible hybrid electronics will play.

Reference

  1. Report available from nextflex.us.

 

www.omnipcb.com

 

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