Apr 26, 2018 | By David

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have succeeded in 3D printing electronics directly on to human skin for the first time. In their groundbreaking study, the team used a cheap, portable desktop 3D printer to fabricate functional electronics components directly on the back of a person’s hand. A special motion-sensing system was used to prevent any errors occurring during the printing process due to the hand’s movement. This technology could be used in future to put temporary sensors on people’s bodies in order to detect chemical or biological agents, or even solar cells to charge essential electronics. The team also printed biological cells directly on a mouse's skin.

"We are excited about the potential of this new 3D printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400," said Michael McAlpine, the study's lead author and the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. "We imagine that a soldier could pull this printer out of a backpack and print a chemical sensor or other electronics they need, directly on the skin. It would be like a 'Swiss Army knife' of the future with everything they need all in one portable 3D printing tool."

We’ve seen 3D printed electronics progress rapidly in recent years, with the technology evolving to meet the growing demand for miniaturization in electronic devices. 3D printing on skin is also something that has been explored in the past, as well as 3D printed skin tissue for grafts. This latest development is the first time functional electronic components have been printed directly on to human skin, and shows a lot of future potential for combining these printing techniques.

Discrete electronic components were first placed on to the subject's hand. The 3D printed electronics were printed around these. As a demonstration of the finished circuit, a LED was successfully powered. Once the printed electronics have served their purpose, they are easy to peel off with tweezers or wash off with water.

One of the key innovations that enabled this 3D printing breakthrough was the creation of a specialized ink made of silver flakes. Unlike other 3D printing inks that need to be cured at high temperatures and would burn the hand during the printing process, this ink is capable of being cured, and can also conduct, at room temperature. The team also developed a system to allow the subject’s hand to move slightly during the 3D printing process. Markers were placed on the skin, and 3D scanned to create a map. With computer vision, this map could be used by the printer to guide it during the printing process, adjusting to small hand movements in real-time.

To research further applications of 3D printing directly on to skin, the same engineering team collaborated with the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics doctor and medical school Dean, Jakub Tolar, who is a world-renowned expert on treating rare skin disease. They used a special bio-ink to 3D print organic cells on to a wound on the skin of a mouse. In future, development of this technique could lead to advanced new medical treatments enabling improved wound healing and direct 3D printing of skin grafts, for people with lesions and other skin disorders.

This study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the state-funded Regenerative Medicine Minnesota. The results were detailed in an article entitled "3D Printed Functional and Biological Materials on Moving Freeform Surfaces", which was published in the Advanced Materials journal.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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