Beginnings of the Flexible Circuit Industry

by Herb Pollack, Parlex Corp.

One of the earliest ideas to manufacture flexible printed wiring had its beginning in the late 1950s at Sanders Associates, a New Hampshire military/aerospace company. The product was meant to replace the bundle of discrete wires that made up a cable harness. The insulating material used was a thermoplastic, Teflon, making the process difficult, with resulting low yields. For this and other reasons, sales were limited to certain military applications, with not very substantial usage. In the late 1960's Dupont introduced a thermoset adhesive on polyimide, which provided more stability for the process. The market was still limited by the primary application of the product as a replacement for a wire harness. I joined Sanders in 1965 to manage several divisions of the company. One of these divisions was the Flexprint Division, and was my first introduction to printed circuits having been recruited out of the microwave test instrumentation industry. I was intrigued by the potential for flexible wiring technology, particularly with the advent of the new material. I left in 1970 to start my own company, Parlex Corporation.

Very early we realized we had to expand the technology to broaden the applications. We developed a process to selectively rigidize the flexible circuit with plated through-holes connecting the flex to the rigid areas so that components as well as connectors could be assembled to the circuit. At the time, it was a complex process since the hole to be plated consisted of varied surfaces made up of the flex and the rigid materials. This 3-dimensional rigid-flex circuit technology that we developed could now be considered an interconnect subsystem for unique packaging and miniaturization of electronic devices. The applications and markets grew. This was followed by the development of production processes for a rigid-flex multilayer, which was initially used by the military, and subsequently, applications in many other commercial markets. Companies in the US, Europe and Asia, particularly Japan, took note of this upcoming flexible circuit technology and the number of producers and users expanded. Today, it is probably one of the fastest growing segments of the global printed circuit industry. Amazingly, after some 40-plus years, it is a product whose time has come.

My personal involvement with IPC began about 40 years ago and my company's membership about 32 years ago. As a member, board member and president, I was privileged to participate in the growth of an industry and the IPC. The president's breakfast was an event where competitive CEO's and presidents discussed legitimate business issues and became good friends. The TMRC meetings with interesting and informative speakers provided a better understanding of our industry and technology. The many committees wrote standards and design guidelines to better educate our customers and us. The annual board of directors meetings were places where Ray Pritchard made us work for several days in a row and then showed us how to relax and play, usually in the sun. The world meetings were events where the printed circuit was the common denominator between many cultures. These and many more events made the IPC a factor for my business and me.

Parlex became a global company and was sold in 2005 to a major, global, Hong Kong based electronics company and I retired.