A new, revolutionary process concerning 3D printing was recently developed at the University of Minnesota. The researchers have managed to create ‘stretchable electronic sensory devices’, which might allow robots to feel their immediate environment. And not only that, but this is another step to successfully printing electronics on the human skin as well.
The research can be found online for now, but it’ll also be published in the Advanced Materials’ next issue.
The lead researcher on this study and a University of Minnesota’s mechanical engineering associate professor, Michael McAlpine, has stated that “This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses. Putting this type of ‘bionic skin’ on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during minimally invasive surgeries, which would make surgery easier instead of just use cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”
Back in 2013, McAlpine was given a permission to create a bionic ear via 3D printing. He now claims that this method could be used for printing electronics on human skin as well. This is the new, wearable tech that could be used for monitoring health, or for detecting dangerous explosives or chemicals in the field by soldiers.
Printing on human skin wasn’t done yet, however, the technique that this team is using has proven that it can print on curved surfaces, and has proven it on a model hand. McAlpine’s team has managed to make the unique sensing fabric with the 3D printer that they managed to build in their lab. It’s multi functional, has four nozzles and can print several special ‘inks’. These specialized inks are used for making several layers of the device. First, they do a base made of silicone, they include top and bottom electrodes that are made of conducting ink, then comes a coil-shaped pressure sensor. Finally, a sacrificial layer that’s designed to hold the top layer is put and later washed away during the finalization of the process.
Fortunately, all of the layers managed to set at the room temperature. Usually, 3D printing uses liquid plastic, which is way too hot and rigid to be used on human skin. On the other hand, these flexible sensors can be implemented, and they can even stretch and achieve three times their normal size.
McAlpine stated that this is a completely new way of approaching 3D printing when it comes to printing electronics.
The best part of this discovery, according to researchers, is that the manufacturing is also built into this process. On the other hand, during most research when something new is discovered, it needs to be scaled up. This means that it might be years before you can actually get to use it. Here, however, this is not the case. The next step is to print on the real body, said the researchers and McAlpine claims that the possibilities for the future use are practically endless.