July 20, 2015 | By Simon

When taking a look at the advances of additive manufacturing over the last decade, it’s easy to see just how much of an impact 3D printing has had in a range of industries and products ranging from prosthetics and medical implants to aerospace parts, buildings and even food items.  But despite all of these advances, we’ve still been missing the ability to produce sensitive electronic components at a reliable and consistent level - an ability that could prove to be one of the most important single developments in additive manufacturing technologies.  

Although we are still a ways off from being able to hit “print” and subsequently produce a consumer electronics product on demand, we have also never been as close as we currently are to seeing this become a common reality.  

Recently, a team of UC Berkeley engineers, in collaboration with colleagues at Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, have been experimenting with incorporating a number of electronic components including resistors, inductors, capacitors and integrated wireless electrical sensing systems into additive manufacturing processes.  Among other products that the teams have been actively developing include a wireless “smart cap” for milk cartons which are capable of detecting spoiled milk with the aide of embedded sensors.   

The team’s findings are published in today’s Microsystems & Nanoengineering, a new  new open-access journal from Nature Publishing Group. 

While it’s commonly known that polymer materials are the most ideal for 3D printing objects on-demand, they are also terrible conductors of electricity and provide little value for developing any sort of an integrated electronics system.  To bypass this while still retaining the ability to take advantage of 3d printing, the researchers produced a system that utilized wax in addition to polymers to produce a desired physical object.  Once a print was completed, the researchers then removed the wax to expose hollow tubes within an object that were then filled with liquid metal (silver in this case) and cured.  The resulting metal-embedded polymer objects featured a number of internal cavity design features that were created for specific electrical functions - such as wires that acted as resistors or flat plates that were made into capacitors.  

“Our paper describes the first demonstration of 3D printing for working basic electrical components, as well as a working wireless sensor,” said Liwei Lin, a senior author of the paper and professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center. “One day, people may simply download 3D-printing files from the Internet with customized shapes and colors and print out useful devices at home.”

To test their experiments in a real-world scenario, the researchers used their process to integrate embedded electronic components in a plastic milk carton cap with features including a capacitor and an inductor in order to form a working resonant circuit.  

When used, the cap is capable of trapping a small sample of milk when the carton is quickly flipped.  Once a sample has been collected inside the cap, the embedded circuit is capable of detecting changes in electrical signals that accompany increased levels of bacteria.   

“This 3D-printing technology could eventually make electronic circuits cheap enough to be added to packaging to provide food safety alerts for consumers,” saidd Lin. “You could imagine a scenario where you can use your cellphone to check the freshness of food while it’s still on the store shelves.”

Along with Lin, the co-lead authors of the study included UC Berkeley research specialist Chen Yang and visiting Ph.D. student Sung-Yueh Wu, who both work in Lin’s lab. Wu is also a student of study co-author Wensyang Hsu, a professor of mechanical engineering at National Chiao Tung University.

According to Lin, the lab is currently refining the technology to be used in a number of health applications including implantable devices that can utilize the embedded transducers to monitor everything from blood pressure and drug concentrations to muscle strain and more.

“I see 3D-printed microelectronic devices as very promising for systems that would benefit from customization,” added Lin.  


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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