Science 4 min read

3D Printing Stretchable Electronics Creates Practical Wearables, Soft Robots

Thanks to research from a team from MIT, exoskeletons may be just around the corner. | Image by IRINA SHI | Shutterstock

Thanks to research from a team from MIT, exoskeletons may be just around the corner. | Image by IRINA SHI | Shutterstock

Researchers developed a new method for 3D printing stretchable electronics, which could improve the usefulness of wearable tech and soft robotics.

I have a challenge for you. Think of a random electronic device. What is it made of? Odds are, whatever device you thought of is encased in rigid plastic or metal.

But what if they didn’t have to be made of rigid materials?

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Maybe someday soon.

At the Missouri University of Science and Technology (S&T), researchers are working on stretchable electronics. The results from their study could change the form of many popular devices. For that matter, it could enable a host of new gadgets hidden and worn in places we never imagined.

According to Heng Pan, assistant professor at S&T and author of a recent study on stretchable electronics, “The biggest benefit of these electronics is that they can be completely wearable, and they can completely form to any kind of motion.” Pan thinks that this could be “the future of electronic development,” fundamentally changing how humans can interact with computers.

Such devices have dozens of possible applications, and to make them all possible Pan and his team are using additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing. By using an approach called ‘direct aerosol printing,’ they are combining conductive materials with a stretchable substrate to make sensors that can be placed directly onto the skin.

Biomonitors, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when talking about the possibilities of this revolutionary new idea. Stretchable electronics could give us plenty of useful wearables and flexible soft robots.

Stretchable Electronics Impact Wearables

The market for wearables is growing, and it will surely thrive alongside the Internet of Things.

Ultimately, we want two things out of the IoT. First, we want everything to have a digital presence, and secondly, we want those presences to be able to interact with one another. With flexible, stretchable electronics, we could weave devices into patches, or even our clothing.

Imagine having a simple patch that can monitor your heart rate during a run. You can barely feel it. It sends many of your biometrics to your physician automatically.

Stretchable electronics could give us this and more. First, it will have to overcome scalability issues.

Electrical devices need to get their power from somewhere, and that often means needing a battery. Currently, Pan and his team are working hard on developing a battery that will integrate well with a stretchable system, but whether or not they will make headway with it is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the device will need to be inexpensive, and recyclable, to make practical wearables.

Smart vests and self-coiling ropes are interesting ideas that we’ll be keeping an eye on, but stretchable electronics aren’t only useful for humankind. For robots, they may represent a revolution in the advancement of soft robotics.

What are Soft Robots?

Think of the androids that you see in science-fiction. Most of them have a type of synthetic flesh, and in some cases, that flesh has capabilities beyond the cosmetic. For robots to emulate human abilities, they’ll need to have a sense of touch, and stretchable electronics can make that possible. In fact, it’s been done.

Soft robots can perform functions that their rigid cousins cannot because they are better equipped to adapt to dynamic terrains and obstacles. Grace and flexibility allow them to emulate sensitivity and the sense of touch in humans.

Robots will require tactile senses if they are ever going to match human dexterity, according to Dr. Nathan Lepora, a senior lecturer in Robotics at the University of Bristol.

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William is an English teacher, a card carrying nerd, And he may run for president in 2020. #truefact #voteforedgy

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