The 3D-Printed FlexBoard Aims to Make Prototyping Wearable and Non-Planar Projects Easier and Faster

3D-printed as a "living hinge" before having electrical conductors added, solderless FlexBoards can conform to almost any surface.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have unveiled a solderless breadboard designed with wearables very firmly in mind: the FlexBoard, which does exactly as its name suggests and bends to conform to almost any surface shape.

"A fundamental development in our modern world is that we can interact with digital content everywhere and anytime, which is enabled through ubiquitous interactive devices. FlexBoard supports the design of these devices by being a versatile and rapid interaction prototyping platform," explains co-author Michael Wessely, assistant professor, of the team's work. "Our platform also enables designers to quickly test different configurations of sensors, displays, and other interactive components, which might lead to faster product development cycles and more user-friendly and accessible designs."

Researchers at MIT are hoping to make prototyping a little more flexible — literally — with FlexBoard. (📹: Ko et al)

Like any other solderless breadboard, a FlexBoard allows the user to insert and remove components at-will without needing to solder or wire them into place. Unlike rival designs, though, the FlexBoards can bend to conform to curved surfaces — like the human hand or arm — using a 3D-printed "living hinge" pattern to connect each piece to its neighbors.

The core concept of FlexBoards is very similar to CurveBoards, another MIT research effort unveiled back in March 2020 and designed to make it easier to prototype electronic circuits for wearables or unusually-shaped devices. Where the shape of a CurveBoard is fixed at the time of manufacture, though, the FlexBoards are truly flexible — making it possible to reposition them or alter their shape at any point during the prototyping process.

"While designing new interactive devices, user interfaces, or most electronic products, we usually treat the object form and electronic functions as two separate tasks, which makes it hard to test the prototype in its use environment in the early stage, and can lead to integration issues further down the road," claims co-author Junyi Zhu. "FlexBoards tackle these issues with enhanced, reusable flexible breadboards, which accelerate the current interactive device prototyping pipeline, and provide a new and valuable prototyping platform for the low-power electronics design and DIY community."

To prove the concept, the team put together a series of demonstrations of FlexBoard-powered prototyping which would be difficult using traditional breadboard designs: adding sensors and LEDs to kettlebells to monitor the user's form and provide feedback during exercise; a collision warning system added to virtual reality controllers; and wearable gloves which can capture the user's gesture, again for feeding into virtual reality. The FlexBoards were tested for 1,000 bends with no damage, and can be taken off prototype objects for re-use, the researchers say.

The team's work was recently presented at CHI'23, viewable above in full. (📹: Ko et al)

At the moment, however, building a FlexBoard is a very slow process: the plastic portion is 3D-printed, making it difficult to produce in volume, and the electrical contacts need to be assembled by hand.

The team presented its work at the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, with full details available on the project website along with a copy of the paper under open-access terms.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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