Researchers have developed a 3D printing technique which they believe could soon make it possible to print electronics directly on human skin. This ultimate wearable technology could eventually be used for health monitoring or by soldiers in the field to detect dangerous chemicals or explosives.
“While we haven’t printed on human skin yet, we were able to print on the curved surface of a model hand using our technique,” said lead researcher Michael McAlpine, Associate Professor at University of Minnesota, in the US. “We also interfaced a printed device with the skin and were surprised that the device was so sensitive that it could detect your pulse in real time,” McAlpine said.
In a paper published online in the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers described that their process for 3D printing stretchable electronic sensory devices could also give robots the ability to feel their environment.
“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses,” McAlpine said. “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 using cameras like they do now. These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment,” McAlpine added.
McAlpine and his team made the unique sensing fabric, which can stretch up to three times their original size, with a one-of-a kind 3D printer they built in the lab. “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,” McAlpine added. The researchers said printing on a real body would be their next step.