Handheld electronic devices have come a long way since the days of the first pagers, PDAs and cell phones. Thanks to new 3D printing techniques, though, the next generation of devices could find their place on your hand, rather than in it. A research team at the University of Minnesota recently published its findings from experiments that used a 3D printable conductive ink to build electronic circuits directly onto the skin of the human hand.
This new technique solves many of the challenges that had previously been associated with 3D printing materials with electrical properties directly onto human skin. First and foremost was the obvious logistical problem involving the temperature to which metals have to be raised to make them printable. Using more traditional printing methods, application to the human skin would have been impossible due to the heat-related tissue damage that would have occurred. To solve this problem, the University of Minnesota team developed a special conductive ink that used flakes of silver suspended in a matrix to conduct electricity. This matrix was designed to be printed at room temperature and then cure without the application of heat, thus circumventing the normal challenges that would have met an effort to print electrical circuits onto the skin.
Another obstacle that the team had to address was the difficulty of printing high-precision parts onto a surface that could not stay perfectly still. This problem was solved by placing temporary positioning markers on the hand and equipping a specially-modified 3D printer with the ability to visually interpret the position of those markers. In this way, the printer was able to adjust the positioning of its head dynamically to keep up with the slight movements that took place while the subjects were having the circuits printed onto their skin.
By overcoming these two large obstacles, the research team made substantial progress toward the ability to print usable electronics directly onto the skin of a user. Such devices would be temporary in nature, as the silver-based ink developed for this procedure can be easily peeled or washed off. In the future, printing temporary devices onto the human body for a wide range of uses could become a common technology, especially for improvising devices that are only needed for one-time use. With such advances potentially playing a large role in the future of technology and device usage, it’s important that people in general and especially younger children begin familiarizing themselves with the basics of 3D printing today.