Robots with the sense of touch: 3D-printed “bionic skin” developed by University of Minnesota engineers

A revolutionary process for 3D printing “stretchable electronic sensory devices” has been developed by engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota, USA. According to the University, the technology could be used in robots to enable them to feel their environment.

“This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses,” Michael McAlpine, mechanical engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the study, was quoted as saying. “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.”

According to McAlpine, the technology could also be used to print electronics on human skin.

“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,” McAlpine said. “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.”

The “electronic fabric” was developed using a 3D printer McAlpine and his team of researchers built themselves.

The multifunctional printer has four nozzles to print the various specialised ‘inks’ that make up the layers of the device—a base layer of silicone, top and bottom electrodes made of a conducting ink, a coil-shaped pressure sensor, and a sacrificial layer that holds the top layer in place while it sets (later washed away in the final manufacturing process), the University report said.

This method of 3D printing uses “inks” that can set at room temperature. The liquid plastic used in conventional 3D printing uses is too hot and too rigid to use on the skin.

“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.”

According to the researchers, 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 researchers say the next step is to move toward semiconductor inks and printing on a real body. “The possibilities for the future are endless,” McAlpine said.

The full research paper entitled “3D Printed Stretchable Tactile Sensors,” is due to be published in the next issue of peer-reviewed material science journal, Advanced Materials and is available online.

Sources: University of Minnesota

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