AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday received a $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2) to support work by researchers led by polymer scientist James Watkins in Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE).
The grant is part of a package of $6.98 million in state funds awarded to seven advanced manufacturing projects that were announced today by Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash at an event at UMass Amherst.
“Advanced sensors, smart construction materials and adaptable clothing are just a few of the innovative products that will be developed in Massachusetts’ evolving manufacturing sector over the coming decades,” said Baker. “These awards will ensure the Commonwealth remains a leader in advanced manufacturing, providing companies access to cutting-edge technology, spurring job creation and economic growth, and training students for the career opportunities of the future.”
“Governor Baker and his administration clearly understand the value of bringing together academia, government and industry to create an innovative economic environment that positions the Commonwealth competitively for continued success,” said UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “The investments in research announced today at our flagship campus include support for our game-changing Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, and such strategic funding helps drive the innovation economy throughout the state.”
The M2I2 grant supports continuing work by Watkins, director of the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing, a nanomanufacturing research center that works with manufacturers to finish their processes and products such as roll-to-roll printed flexible nano-batteries, antennas, leads and sensors.
In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense named UMass Amherst the lead institution in the Northeast for a $75 million initiative to create a research-to-manufacturing collaboration between U.S. industry and academia to solve problems in advanced manufacturing known as Manufacturing USA. Industry partners include E Ink of South Hadley, Carpe Diem Technologies of Franklin, Uniqarta of Cambridge, SI2 Technologies of North Billerica and United Technologies Research Center of East Hartford, Connecticut.
The new electronics will move tasks now performed by more expensive, rigid devices that use silicon-based semi-conductor chips found in computers and devices like mobile phones and overthe next few years will replace them with smaller, less expensive components such as sensors printed on thin plastic ribbons in roll-to-roll manufacturing facilities like the one at the campus’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS).
Hybrid devices that include both silicon chip-based components and printed sensors represent a bridge between today’s technology and fully printed devices coming in the future. A recently released National Research Council report says the global market for flexible electronics will experience a double-digit growth rate, reaching $250 billion by 2025.
Watkins says his research focuses on smarter, smaller, flexible and inexpensive sensors, with the ultimate goal to produce, for example, a skin patch that monitors activity and has sensors to collect biomarkers for glucose, stress or medication levels. Such intelligent patch sensors are being developed by the IALS Center for Personalized Health Monitoring at UMass Amherst.
The range of applications is expected to be very broad for high-performance devices on flexible patches, fabrics and films. UMass Amherst is not the only research group in the country working on flexible devices, Watkins notes, but he and colleagues have made progress in critical areas to move products toward the manufacturing level.
Under the Manufacturing USA program, Massachusetts is convening the national effort to develop revolutionary functional fibers and textiles, and participating in regional manufacturing innovation institutes in robotics, integrated photonics, flexible hybrid electronics, and biopharma manufacturing.
Massachusetts’ manufacturing sector accounts for 10.1 percent of the Commonwealth’s total economic input, with $26 billion in manufacturing goods exported from Massachusetts in 2016. Approximately 250,000 employees work in the manufacturing sector in Massachusetts, comprising 7.8 percent of the total workforce in the state.