3D printed 'bionic skin' could aid in health monitoring

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A revolutionary process for 3D printing stretchable electronic sensory devices that could be used to produce real human skin has recently been developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota.

"This stretchable electronic fabric we developed has many practical uses," said Michael McAlpine, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the study, in a statement. "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."

The findings were published in Advanced Materials. McAlpine notes that this wearable technology has the potential to 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 McAlpine. "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 et al built a 3D multifunctional printer and used it to make the sensing fabric that can stretch up to three times its original size. With the manufacturing built into the process, the fabric can be ready at any time.

"This is a completely new way to approach 3D printing of electronics," said McAlpine. "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."