Introduction: Flexible Laptop
This was a quick little project I did to keep my design and prototyping skills sharp and share something that isn't under NDA or in the process of being licensed to somebody. I'm submitting it to the pro tips challenge and this is really a guide to creating a looks-like prototype. My goal was to make a laptop that could be slipped into a jacket pocket like a large envelope.
This project relies heavily on online service bureaus like Ponoko and Shapeways for supplying a few critical parts and was done mostly with X-acto blades and a cutting board. I'll try to link to my sources and cite costs when possible.
Step 1: Concept Development in SolidWorks
As an industrial designer, I use SolidWorks as my primary design tool. My goal with the initial design was to create a laptop computer that you'd see in the near future - maybe 2025. My first model was a little too sci-fi and didn't quite work in terms of a believable screen thickness and method for propping up the screen. The screen is razor-thin and I wanted it to roll up into a 15mm diameter tube. That's a pretty big ask, even of some imaginary super-thin material.
With my next concept I decided to follow the lead of Microsoft's surface tablets and laptop computers by combining fabric areas with hard elements. There are two main hard bits connected by a flexible panel that runs across the entire device. The palm-rest folds over onto the keyboard which is stolen from a MacBook with the function keys removed. I also decided to keep the 16:9 aspect ratio that's so popular these days, although a taller 4:3 display would work even better.
The design itself is very simple with a small chamfer around the bottom of the hard parts, a channel to hold the flexible panel, and a small cut-out that allows users to get their fingers between the two parts when folded closed. I feel that the size of the hard parts are realistic for containing a small processor, motherboard, and SSD hard drive with room for cylindrical batteries inside the hinge area. There are existing laptops that are even thinner than what I chose to create, but prototyping those cheaply is really tough since they use CNC milled aluminum and other materials that are a bit too exotic for the home model-maker. As for ports, I put a USB-C port and 3.5mm audio jack on either end of the hinge cylinder.
The only real leap of faith I'm taking here is the bendable display, which I couldn't find an example of anywhere that isn't just a prototype made by some tech giant for a trade show. In a few years though, I'm sure we'll see them everywhere.
Step 2: Tools and Materials
Flexible electroluminescent panel & power supply - $300.00 ( https://www.ellumiglow.com/electroluminescence/vyn... )
MacBook keyboard part - $11.00 (ebay.com )
Laser-cut 1.5mm thick clear plastic, Laser-cut 0.5mm thick black plastic, Laser-cut 2.5mm thick clear plastic - $70.00 ( ponoko.com )
1/16" thick birch craft wood - $2.50
Scrap felt - $0.50 ( Michaels craft store )
Fabric - $32.00 ( fabric.com )
Fabric tape, double stick tape, metalic tape - $15.00 ( mcmaster.com & Michaels craft store )
2 3D printed parts - $120.00 ( shapeways.com )
8x 1/16" x 1/2" neodymium magnets - $10.00 ( mcmaster.com )
E6000 flexible glue - $5.00 ( Michaels craft store )
Super glue - $3.00 ( Michaels craft store )
Assorted colors of transparent gels - $21.00 ( https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6NMVXT/ref=... )
TOTAL COST = $590.00
Tools required: X-acto knives & X-acto holder, straight-edge, scissors, cutting mat, books to weigh things down.
Step 3: Building the Flexible Panel
I was hoping that a perforated pattern created using a laser cutter would be enough to make the 1.5mm plastic core flexible enough to work, but that quickly turned out not to be the case. I tried gently test bending the plastic, but I wasn't able to get more than a 2" radius at about 90 degrees before the plastic snapped along the perforations. Undaunted, I tried plan-B - using strips of wood to act as one-way hinge. I snapped off all the perforated plastic and replaced it with wood which I scored every 1.5mm or so. The laser cut plastic core still proved useful as a place-holder for the 8 magnets which keep the laptop closed.
The Electroluminescent panel I ordered had an adhesive backing, so I was able to save myself the trouble of putting on a couple dozen strips of double-sided tape, but I had to be careful to not cut into the EL-panel when scoring the wood. The electrical connection for the panel also required some quick thinking as I didn't want the power cord sticking out of the bottom - I wanted to re-route it to a place that was a little more hidden, so I needed to fold it over on itself without creasing it and breaking the delicate connection. I wrapped it around a bundle of felt so it wouldn't get crushed and then padded out the area around it with more felt.
Another important part of this step is masking off all the dark areas with metaled tape so there aren't any unwanted blueish white light leaks. I placed the red-orange stack of transparent gels where the keyboard and track-pad back-lighting would go and made sure everything was firmly stuck down. Also, the black 'strong and flexible' plastic I used from Shapeways is pretty low resolution, showing a lot of build steps, and has a rough but uniform texture. Don't try to sand this off as the color only exists on the surface - inside is all white material.
Step 4: Wrapping With Fabric and Sewing the Edge
I chose to use some cool iridescent silk fabric to make the project a little more interesting. I'm not the greatest seamstress, so I relied heavily on fabric tape before stitching the edge, which proved to be a blessing and a curse. It held things together pretty well, but every time the needle pierced the tape, it got covered in sticky adhesive and just made things pretty difficult. It took me over 4 hours to sew the edge.
Once I had the flexible panel completely encased in fabric, I cut out the areas that needed to show through - the track-pad, keyboard, and screen. Getting the edges of the screen to look neat was more than my fabric taping skills could handle, so I ended up covering the border with a 1/4" strip of metalized tape. It doesn't look great, but is better than a weird wobbly edge.
Once everything was finished, I started gluing together the parts. An important detail is worth noting here - don't use Super glue or CA glue on stuff like keyboards - the fumes adhere to any fingerprints and make the keyboard look nasty. I had to scrub a lot to get them back to looking shiny and nice. I used the E6000 flexible glue to hold down the two hard bits and once they were dry, I propped the screen up with a stack of books and poured glue into the hinge gap. This is a bit of a kludge as the glue isn't quite enough to hold up the screen for long. Ideally I'd use screws or staples, but that would look bad going through the fabric cover.
Step 5: The Final Product
In the end I used a pink transparent gel and a fake desktop image that I printed on transparency film to make the screen look realistic when open and illuminated (the light from the EL panel is very blue & the pink layer shifts it back to white.) A black transparent gel is good for making the screen look turned-off as the screen alone looks very blue-white and not very much like a blank computer monitor.
I'm pretty happy with the results and think we should be seeing flexible computing solutions like this in the coming years as display technology catches up to my design. Thanks for reading my instructable and let me know if you have any questions :)