3D-printed fingertip sensors take us one step closer to bionic humans

Wearable tech is getting smaller all the time. The latest example comes from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where researchers have developed a silicone pressure sensor able to be 3D-printed directly onto a person’s hand.

The results could one day be used to give robots a sense of touch, restore it for humans who have lost their own due to skin damage, or provide haptic feedback for use-cases like carrying out delicate surgical procedures.

“This work involves the 3D printing of stretchable sensors which act as tactile or touch sensors,” Michael McAlpine, a materials scientist who led the research project, told Digital Trends. “In other words, when you touch the sensor, you get a change in electrical conductivity as a result of how the touch interacts with the device. The device consists of many layers of 3D-printed materials which are first formulated as inks, and then extruded into device ‘fabrics’ that are stretchable. These fabrics are connected by a central coil which is particularly responsive to pressure, and therefore gives the entire device the ability to ‘feel.’”

Flexible, stretchable sensors open up a range of exciting possibilities when it comes to creating bionic augmentations for humans.

In its current iteration, the 4mm-wide sensor is relatively simple; being more of a showcase of the 3D-printing technology that’s able to print with soft silicone-based ink on the complex curve of a hand. However, the researchers showed that it was still sufficiently advanced that it can read a human pulse. An article describing the work was published in the journal Advanced Materials.

So far, the technology has only been used to print on an artificial hand. But expect that to change soon. “We demonstrated the concept of 3D printing a complete tactile sensor directly on the curved surface of a mannequin finger,” McAlpine continued. “In the future, we would like to extend this concept to actually 3D printing devices such as sensors onto real hands.”

We may still be a distance from some of the use-cases we described up top, but thanks to the pioneering work of labs like the University of Minnesota’s, we’re getting closer every day.

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