All About Flex: Options for Purchasing Flexible Heaters

Flexible heaters represent a product technology generically described as thin and flexible heating elements used as attachments to various heat sinks to provide freeze protection, consistent temperatures, and thermal control from -80°C to +230°C and higher. Options exist in terms of materials and shapes, resulting in custom-engineered thermal performance. Thermistors or thermocouples are components for temperature sensing often assembled to heaters as part of a value-add option. Soldering is a less common component attachment method as higher temperature heaters can often reflow a solder joint, so brazing and welding connection processes have been adopted. Like flexible circuits, the three primary cost drivers are physical size, volume, and material construction.

The following are some of those considerations when purchasing a flexible heater circuit.

Custom vs. Standard

Standard heater part numbers can be procured in various shapes, sizes, materials and configurations to match a range of thermal requirements. In many cases, these standard heaters are offered as stocked or catalog parts to be purchased with immediate delivery. Several suppliers offer standard heater options. An alternative for a higher level of customization is a configuration tool used to specify and order a “customized standard” heater. This allows size, shape, and thermal characteristics to be varied within some technical borders. Fully customized heater circuits are usually required when special shapes, materials or power requirements are needed and are not available in a standard product format. 

As design sophistication increases, multiple heat zones are defined within a single heating element. This helps adjust for heat loss around the edge of a heat sink or create unique thermal properties for a specific application. Additional function and complexity can occur as custom heated zones are created within a flexible circuit. This generally limits the heater element to a copper construction which can be limiting due to copper’s conductivity. Selective copper plating is sometimes used to create regions of higher and lower conductivity within a flexible circuit with “heater” regions.

High Temperature vs. Standard Temperature

While medical instrumentation applications targeting 98.6°F are common, most polyimide based heater circuits are specified to perform well with temperatures at less than 150°C. Top-end temperature performance is difficult to state unequivocally as performance robustness is driven by the thermal characteristics of the heated module. Characteristics of the heat sink, heater attachment methods, element pattern, and temperature ramp time can all affect how a flexible heater performs. As temperatures exceed 150°C, alternative materials are recommended. Flexible polyimide based heaters operating at 250°C offer high performance in an increasing array of applications.

Polyimide-Based vs. Silicone Rubber

Silicone rubber heaters have some advantages over polyimide heaters. Silicone provides better wear protection from abrasion and mechanical damage and delivers a moisture barrier enabling heaters to be used in outdoor applications. Barrel heaters are used to keep liquids at controlled temperatures and are generally made of silicone rubber. Silicone rubber tends to be thicker which can impede or slow heat transfer. The added thickness also makes a silicone heater less flexible which is limiting when bonding to a tightly curved surface. Finally, silicone rubber can experience a degree of out-gassing which may make it a poor choice in tightly sealed environments or for chemically sensitive applications where contamination might cause reliability issues.

Electrical Parameters

Heaters can be specified in terms of resistance, amperage, voltage and power. If two of these parameters are known, Ohm’s Law can be used to calculate the other two. But thermal transfer is a complex equation with ambient temperatures, heat sink materials, and air flow affecting product performance.

A common practice for determining flexible heater design often involves a bit of trial and error with some experimentation. Fortunately, this can usually be done quickly with a sample heater, a representative heat sink, and a variable power source (Variac). Adjusting the power supply to increase or decrease the heater’s voltage is done until the desired thermal performance of the heat sink is achieved. This voltage reading can be used with Ohm’s Law to provide a watt density calculation. On-line calculators make this a simple task. This data provides the information for a custom heater design to achieve the same watt density (i.e., thermal output) with the power source available.

Alternatively, finite element analysis (FEA) is used to model thermal performance sans sample parts. Collection of material properties for data input, combined with sophisticated software and engineering time, are input variables. This data provides an accurate model of an application’s thermal characteristics with the heat output from a customized flexible heater.

Dave Becker is vice president of sales and marketing at All Flex Flexible Circuits LLC.

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2017

All About Flex: Options for Purchasing Flexible Heaters

11-15-2017

Flexible heaters represent a product technology generically described as thin and flexible heating elements used as attachments to various heat sinks to provide freeze protection, consistent temperatures, and thermal control from -80°C to +230°C and higher.

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All About Flex: More on UAVs and Flexible Circuits

10-30-2017

The use of drones or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) is growing at a nearly exponential rate. This includes drones used by the government, private companies and hobbyists. If you have $100, you can find a long list of drones for purchase.

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All About Flex: Flexible Circuit Failure Analysis

10-19-2017

Design reviews and early involvement by a circuit board fabrication house can minimize the possibility of field problems, but despite best efforts, there remain occasions when diagnosis of a poorly performing design is required.

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All About Flex: Flexible Circuits for Reusable Medical Products

09-21-2017

Flexible circuits have been used in medical devices and medical instrumentation for several decades. Flex circuits and flexible heaters can be ideal solutions in applications requiring lightweight, continuous movement, and highly reliable interconnections that are biocompatible.

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All About Flex: Flexible Circuits and Man-Made Satellites

09-12-2017

The first satellite was launched by the USSR in 1957. The U.S. successfully launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958 while announcing the intention to “win” the race to outer space. Today satellites serve many vital purposes.

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All About Flex: Using ZIF Connectors with Flexible Circuits

09-07-2017

Zero insertion force (ZIF) connectors are probably the most popular flexible circuitry connector because they allow the circuit to be inserted and removed multiple times with very little mechanical wear on the copper traces.

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All About Flex: The Anatomy of a Flex Circuit Cutline

08-22-2017

Numerous methods are used to create the cutline of a flexible circuit. With the various tooling options, the methods, process steps, tooling and technology are different. These differences affect the actual physics of cutting, and create slight variations on the circuit material.

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All About Flex: ITAR Registration

08-15-2017

Vendors building product for the defense industry often stipulate a supplier needs to be ITAR registered. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations and is a program run by the U.S. government to control the export of defense-related technology to foreign countries.

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Successful Flex Circuit Assembly

08-02-2017

Many contract manufacturers are reluctant to mix rigid and flexible circuits on the same assembly line as the handling and fixturing requirements can be quite different. Characteristics allowing a flexible circuit to be flexible can often present learning curve challenges when component or mechanical assembly is required. This article details some of the common issues experienced when assembling flexible circuits, and strategies to ensure reliable assembly.

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All About Flex: Button Plating on a Flexible Circuit

07-20-2017

Button plating describes a fabrication process widely used in the flex circuit industry to selectively electroplate copper to the vias and onto the pads capturing the vias. The rest of the copper traces do not have plating. Another industry term used to describe this feature is pads only plating. Producing a circuit with this processing methodology requires two photolithography steps.

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2016

All About Flex: Customer Acquisition

12-22-2016

The “Customer Acquisition” process can be thought of as consisting of three major segments: collection, selection and execution. While these sub-divisions should be considered as intimately interrelated, examining them as separate disciplines can be enlightening.

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All About Flex: Disruption in the Supply Chain

12-08-2016

Manufacturers need a highly dependable supply chain to successfully support their products. This is especially true of custom designed and built components, as many times, only one supplier is available for a component since tooling and development costs discourage dual sourcing.

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All About Flex: Packaging Flexible Circuits and Assemblies

12-01-2016

Many facets are involved in delivering a flexible circuit. During the quote and design phase, requirements are reviewed. So assuming the relevant product documentation was gathered, the salesperson turned around the quote, and the customer placed an order and parts were built, it’s all over, right? Not quite. One critical aspect that does not get much discussion is packaging and shipping.

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All About Flex: Non-Copper Flexible Circuit Applications

11-22-2016

While pure copper is the most common choice for flexible circuit fabrication, there are times a different metal is more suitable for an application. Copper is well known for its excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, but there are applications where the best thermal or electrical conductivity can be a disadvantage.

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All About Flex: Flex Circuit Specifications for Commercial and Military Applications

10-27-2016

Applications across the various markets for printed circuit boards can have significantly different specifications and performance requirements. Circuits for toys and games logically have lower performance requirements than those used in medical devices. IPC-6013 is an industry-driven specification that defines the performance requirements and acceptance features for flexible printed circuit boards.

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All About Flex: Five Characteristics of a Reliable Flexible Circuit Supplier

10-27-2016

Due diligence when selecting a source for a custom electronic product can be a critical sourcing procedure. Chains are only as good as the weakest link, and the electronic components assembled to create a marketable product need to combine into a robust solution.

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All About Flex: Flexible Circuit Prototypes

10-13-2016

Most electronic projects begin with at least one build of prototype parts before moving into volume manufacturing. But the definition of a flex circuit prototype can vary considerably from one project to another. In many cases, a prototype build is only a few parts used to verify form, fit and function, with engineering trying to determine if something actually works.

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Flex Circuit Specifications for Commercial and Military Applications

09-30-2016

Applications across the various markets for printed circuit boards can have significantly different specifications and performance requirements. Circuits for toys and games logically have lower performance requirements than those used in medical devices. IPC 6013 is an industry-driven specification that defines the performance requirements and acceptance features for flexible printed circuit boards.

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All About Flex: Lead-Free Soldering Flexible Circuits

09-23-2016

Ever since the European community adopted the RoHS directive in 2006, the U.S. electronics industry has been steadily increasing its use of lead-free solder. Medical was the first U.S. industry to go totally lead-free. Today, a significant percentage of electronics soldering is done with lead-free solder.

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All About Flex: FAQs on RoHS for Flex Circuits

09-02-2016

In 2003, the European Union (EU) adopted a standard called the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), which restricts the use of certain materials in electronic products and electronic equipment. The intent is to reduce the environmental impact of known hazardous materials and has driven changes in manufacturing processes and materials used to manufacture a wide array of electronic products.

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2015

All About Flex: Embracing the Mess

12-03-2015

Marketing in the world of printed circuits is an important discipline, but I have learned it is better to be prepared with a nimble reaction than to expect the marketing department to consistently be successful in predicting the future. The path to the goal is often achieved much more quickly by making an early decision followed by a course correction rather than waiting for all the information.

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All About Flex: Flexible PCB: What’s in a Name?

11-12-2015

Flexible PCB is a common term that is synonymous with flexible circuits. While the term “PCB” is generally used to describe rigid printed circuitry, “flexible PCB” is a little contradictory because “boards” aren’t really flexible. Some companies, like All Flex, design and manufactures flexible PCBs, but not rigid PCBs. There are many similarities between the two, but also significant differences.

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Plated Through-holes in Flexible Circuits

10-29-2015

There is probably no more important feature than the plated through-hole (also called via or via hole) with regard to the reliability and integrity of a flexible circuit. The through-hole provides electrical connection between insulated layers and enables electrical functionality on double-sided and multilayer flexible circuits.

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Testing Flexible Circuits, Part 3: The Completed Flex Circuit

10-15-2015

Most flex houses perform a variety of tests on completed flexible circuits. The type, frequency, and complexity of these tests vary with customer and application. Test requirements are generally defined by the customer, but input is often solicited from the supplier during the quote process.

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Testing Flexible Circuits, Part I: Requirements and Procedures

09-17-2015

In this first of a three part series regarding tests for flexible circuits, I will examine overall requirements and procedures; the second installment will focus on raw materials, and the third and final part will focus on testing for bare flexible circuit and circuit assemblies.

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Catching Up to Yesterday

09-02-2015

Recently, KPMG, an international consultancy that operates as a network of member firms offering audit, tax and advisory services, came out with their 6th annual survey of manufacturing executives focusing on global manufacturing trends.

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The Butterfly Effect

08-20-2015

If a random initial disturbance from the wings of a butterfly can have a dramatic effect, just think what can be accomplished with intentional acts aimed at making sure our customers are receiving proactive attention.

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Is Wearable Technology Just a Fad?

08-13-2015

Wearable technology is in its infancy. The industry needs to mature and go back to basic marketing—finding a need and filling it. Flexible circuits have been around since the mid-1960s and have been successfully filling needs. Flexible circuits are ideal for wearable technology because they are thin and lightweight. As the marketing matures, the applications will come and flexible circuits will be there to fill the technical needs.

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Unique Single-Sided Flexible Circuits

08-06-2015

The number of iterations, sequences and combinations possible when manufacturing a flexible circuit can create unique product features to reduce hand assembly of wires, create switch contacts, or eliminate connectors. With minor alterations in basic processing steps, a flex circuit applications engineer can often imagine and configure a dramatically different flexible circuit.

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Agricultural Drones and Flexible Circuits

07-28-2015

According to MIT Technology Review, one of theTop 10 breakthrough technologies last year was the agricultural drone. I focused on drones in one of my recent columns, Flexible Circuits and UAV Applications, which briefly mentioned agriculture as one of the uses for drones.

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