Jan 4, 2017 | By Julia

Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) are stretching the capabilities of 3D printed electronics – but this time, we mean literally.

A recent study published in the January 2017 issue of “Micromachines” journal confirms the emerging field of stretchable electronics is no longer the stuff of science fiction. In contrast to the stiff circuit boards that have dominated virtually all electronics up until now, Missouri S&T researchers have found that elongated or twisted electronic components (or “stretchable” electronics) are awaiting us on the not-too-distant horizon. And in what will come as no surprise to some, a 3D printing-inspired approach is very much at the centre of this exciting innovation.

a stretchable electronic device

Focusing on elastomer – a type of conductor that can be built onto the surface of a polymer – the Missouri S&T study finds that stretchable electronics could soon be the new industry standard in the fields of vehicle onboard systems, electronic gadgets, medical devices, and more. As a potential replacement to the current circuit board, these flexible conductors could usher in previously unseen technology such as clothing-adhered sensors for monitoring heart or brain activity.

Key to these findings is the material known as elastomer. A flexible surface or substrate with extremely high elasticity, elastomer is an effective constituent that can sustain repeated twisting, stretching, and bending with little to no impact on its performance.  

That’s where 3D printing comes in. In their paper “Materials, Mechanics, and Patterning Techniques for Elastomer-based Stretchable Conductors,” the Missouri S&T team suggests that manufacturers could 3D print very thin layers of conductive material onto an elastomer surface, producing exceedingly stretchable electronics.

3D printing could also be a valuable approach for overcoming the challenges that currently face stretchable electronics developers. As Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Dr. Heng Pan explains, right now we are still attempting to resolve the “mismatches” between flexible elastomer bases and more rigid electronic conductors.

“Unique designs and stretching mechanics have been proposed to harmonize the mismatches and integrate materials with widely different properties as one unique system,” writes Pan and his Missouri S&T team.

“With the development of additive manufacturing, direct writing techniques are showing up as an alternative to the traditional subtractive patterning methods.”

An additive manufacturing approach would prove more economical than the subtractive approaches, such as photolithography, that currently dominate today’s semiconductor manufacturing.

With this in mind, Dr. Pan’s team has begun testing a new approach called “direct aerosol printing.” The unique method involves spraying then integrating a conductive material with a stretchable substrate, creating sensors that can be placed directly on human skin.

The paper explains that “with the increase of complexity and resolution of devices, higher requirements for patterning techniques are expected. Direct printing, as an additive manufacturing method, would satisfy such requirements and offer low cost and high speed in both prototyping and manufacturing. It might be a solution for cost-effective and scalable fabrication of stretchable electronics.”

The Missouri S&T team admits that several other challenges must be addressed before stretchable electronics become commonplace, including improved longevity and the development of stretchable batteries.

Still, Pan and his colleagues are confident that stretchable electronics represent a readily achievable industry development – one that may stretch into the future for a long time to come.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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