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Wearable devices have come a long way, but nothing on the market today compares to what we might see in the future. The University of Minnesota is offering a glimpse of that future, though, as researchers have achieved a first this week: using a 3D printer to print electronics directly on a human hand. Imagine the possibilities – printed electronics worn directly on the skin could be used as mobile chargers, or soldiers could print temporary sensors on their hands to detect chemical or biological agents.

Michael McAlpine

“We are excited about the potential of this new 3D-printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400,” said Michael McAlpine, the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and an expert in 3D printed electronics. “We imagine that a soldier could pull this printer out of a backpack and print a chemical sensor or other electronics they need, directly on the skin. It would be like a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of the future with everything they need all in one portable 3D printing tool.”

To achieve the breakthrough, the researchers used a self-made 3D printer and an ink made from silver flakes that cure and conduct at room temperature, meaning that they can be printed and worn without burning the skin. To remove the electronics, the wearer can simply peel them off or wash them off with water.

To 3D print the electronics, temporary markers were placed on the skin to allow it to be scanned. The 3D printer then uses computer vision to adjust to small, involuntary movements of the hand.

“No matter how hard anyone would try to stay still when using the printer on the skin, a person moves slightly and every hand is different,” said McAlpine. “This printer can track the hand using the markers and adjust in real-time to the movements and contours of the hand, so printing of the electronics keeps its circuit shape.”

Electronics aren’t the only things that can be 3D printed on the skin using the new technology – it can also be used to 3D print cells directly onto wounds. McAlpine and his team partnered with University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics doctor and medical school Dean Jakub Tolar, an expert on treating rare skin diseases. The team successfully used the 3D printer and a bio-ink to print cells directly on the skin wound of a mouse. This could lead to advanced treatments for patients with skin diseases or injuries like burns.

“I’m fascinated by the idea of printing electronics or cells directly on the skin,” McAlpine said. “It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”

The research was published in an article entitled “3D Printed Functional and Biological Materials on Moving Freeform Surfaces,” which you can access here. Authors of the paper include Zhijie Zhu, Shuang-Zhuang Guo, Tessa Hirdler, Cindy Eide, Xiaoxiao Fan, Jakub Tolar, and Michael C. McAlpine.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Source/Images: University of Minnesota]

 

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