3D printed stretchable sensor

Credit: University of Minnesota.

The 3D printed bionic skin gives robots the sense of touch. A one-of-a-kind 3D printer built at the University of Minnesota can print touch sensors directly on a model hand.

The researchers from the University of Minnesota have developed a new process for 3D printing. The 3D printing stretchable electronic sensor devices give robots the ability to feel their environment. This discovery is a major step in printing electronics on human skin.

“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses,” said Michael McAlpine. “Inserting this type of Bionic Skin on surgical robots would give surgeons the ability to actually feel during invasive surgeries, which make surgery easier instead of using cameras as they do now. These sensors also makes easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment.”

Michael McAlpine gained international acclaim in 2013 for integrating electronics and novel 3D printing nanomaterial’s for creating a ‘bionic ear’. This new wearable technology could be used to monitor health or for soldiers to detect dangerous explosives or chemicals.

“While we have not printed on human skin yet, we are able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique,” McAlpine said. “We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and surprised to see that the device is so sensitive which could detect your pulse in real time.”

McAlpine and team made the unique sense fabric with a 3D printer which they had built-in the lab. The multifunctional printer has four nozzles to print the specialized inks which make the device. The device has a base layer of silicon, top and bottom electrodes of conducting ink, a coiled shaped pressure sensor, and a sacrificial layer to hold the top layer. The sacrificial layer is washed away in the final manufacturing process.

The layers of “inks” used in the flexible sensors are set at room temperature. Conventional 3D printing using liquid plastic is too hot and rigid to use on the skin. These flexible 3D printed sensors can stretch up to three times their original size.

“This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics,” McAlpine said. “We have a multifunctional printer that can print several layers to make these flexible sensory devices. This could take us into so many directions from health monitoring to energy harvesting to chemical sensing.”

The best part of the discovery is that the manufacturing is built into the process.

“With most research, you discover something and then it needs to be scaled up. Sometimes it could be years before it ready for use,” McAlpine said. “This time, the manufacturing is built right into the process so it is ready to go now.”

The next step is to move towards the semiconductor inks and to print on a real body. “The possibilities for the future are endless,” McAlpine said.

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