3D Printed Sensors Could Be The Key to a Seamless Internet of Things

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has been heralded as one of the next big steps in our technological development. The vision is somewhat utopian: the system collects information, relaying it swiftly throughout a hyperconnected network and uses that data to discover insights and take action in order to improve our daily lives. It could save energy by making devices more efficient, optimize areas like infrastructure and traffic, help with waste management and personal health, and do so much more.

The capabilities of the IoT are a result of many factors, but one fundamental aspect to consider is the sensing tech that will be used to collect data throughout IoT systems. Not only must we consider the strength and power of these sensors, but we must also consider how we are going to create such a massive amount of the devices in order to adequately track the large waves of data created out in the world.

This is where 3D printing technology and the use of nanomaterials come into play. When utilized together, they can help create the seamless and powerful IoT that we envision.

The strengths of 3D printing

3D printing is a rapidly evolving technology that has the potential to provide a great deal of value within scientific, industrial, and even everyday settings. One could viably see the technology utilized to create and mass-produce the bulk of IoT sensors. At the very least, the additive manufacturing process can help in designing optimal enclosures for the electronic components of sensors. Because of this process, it’s easy to modify or add new features to the enclosure without having to start from scratch. This flexibility would certainly benefit in the creation of sensors as they develop and change form or function.

But exciting developments in 3D printing electronic components are what will truly unlock the mass-production of strong and capable IoT sensors. The use of conductive ink — an ink for 3D printing infused with conductive materials such as copper, silver, and gold — can enable us not only to conveniently print electronics, but to also remove the constraints of the traditional 2D circuit board. By creating three-dimensional circuit boards that can take on a number of different shapes or sizes, we will be able to build a more versatile array of devices. And importantly, this can consolidate and speed up the creation of IoT sensors.

Bringing nanomaterials into play

Aside from developments in 3D printing sensors like conductive ink, we can also turn to nanomaterials, which are often cited for their high-functioning capabilities. In particular, graphene is considered an ideal material for sensors: it’s durable, flexible, highly conductive, and can detect changes in the environment through factors such as temperature, light, pressure, and can even sense chemical changes. A massive amount of research has gone into unlocking the capabilities of graphene, and its use in sensors can help provide the IoT with accurate information and greater resilience.

This means that it can address both the external and internal needs of IoT sensors (i.e. the creation of a strong and resilient enclosure and of highly capable electronic parts). And seeing as how 3D printing could be instrumental for enabling the creation of sensors on a far greater scale, it stands to reason that pairing this process with graphene would be an immense boost to the capabilities of an IoT system.

IoT sensors, in order to provide accurate measurements on the environment around them, must be strong enough to withstand harsh conditions such as rain and snow, or some industrial cases, be strong enough to withstand extreme heat or even salt erosion from marine-based applications. For more traditional metals and materials, the elements could quickly wear at the tech, which could result in inaccurate data that would disrupt the IoT system. It would also be highly inefficient to constantly replace sensors, making durable nanomaterials as the ideal base for creating sensors.

Fighting headwinds and promising developments

But the other hurdle to overcome revolves around the sheer number of sensors that we’ll need to run IoT systems. Market researchers estimate that there are already more than 20 billion connected devices in today’s world, and that number will only continue to grow as we become more technologically advanced and seek to bring about a true IoT. The sheer number of devices translates to an equally massive amount of sensors, and making advanced, nanomaterial-based sensing tech for widespread use is a monumentally challenging endeavor, especially as mass-producing nanomaterials like graphene have proven difficult in the past. In addition, the cost of implementing so many sensors may give many pause over pursuing such a cause, even if the nanomaterial-based sensors are so capable.

The “wonder material” graphene, which has historically been troublesome to produce, has recently seen potential breakthroughs that will allow scientists to create higher quantities, which in the case of 3D printing IoT sensors means that printers could very well have plenty of material to work with.

SEM images of Graphene Oxide ink

Scientists have also recently experimented with 3D printing objects with graphene, which could prove to be the final key in unlocking nanomaterial-based sensors for the IoT. Researchers in China have discovered a way to utilize the virtually 2D material to create 3D objects by using a graphene oxide ink, and have successful used the nanomaterial to create tiny supercapacitors.

Graphene-based cilia inspired sensors.

It’s not far-fetched to say that if graphene ink can be used to 3D print batteries, sensor tech can’t be too far behind. For instance, graphene has been used to 3D print biologically-inspired cilia sensors that imitate how creatures in nature sense their surroundings. Paired with other developments in printing sensor tech, such as integration with wearables, the scientific world has taken a massive step toward making the process of mass-producing nanomaterial-based sensors faster and more affordable.

The development of sensing tech and the need to overcome the various obstacles in their creation and implementation are issues that seem to fly under the radar when discussing the amazing possibilities presented by the Internet of Things. But in spite of these challenges, the IoT is purported to hit the mainstream by 2020. And when looking at the trajectory of 3D printing and nanotechnology for sensor use, it’s clear that we are well on our way to achieving a seamless sensor-based IoT.

Don Basile is a Venture Capitalist and writer and you can find him here.

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