3D Printed Bionic Skin Will Help Humans and Machines Merge


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A new 3D printed “Bionic Skin” developed at the University of Minnesota, is a stretchable, electronic fabric, which would allow robots to gain tactile sensation. The results of this study were published in the journal, Advanced Materials. Scientists have been dreaming of artificial skin since the 1970’s. Thanks to funding by a division of the National Institutes of Health, we are much closer to making it a reality.

Michael McAlpine was the lead researcher on this study. He’s a mechanical engineering associate professor at the university. In 2013, while at Princeton, McApline gained international attention for 3D printing nano-materials to fashion a “bionic ear.” For this project, Prof. McAlpine enlisted graduate students Shuang-Zhuang Guo, Kaiyan Qiu, Fanben Meng, and Sung Hyun Park.

Amputee with natural looking robot arm.

This could change the calculus on options offered to amputees. Getty Images.

Dr. McAlpine and his team created a unique 3D printer unlike any in the world. The device has four nozzles, each with several different functions. To print on the skin, the surface is first carefully scanned for its contours and shape. The printer can follow any curvature. Then, once the surface area has been mapped out precisely, printing can begin. McApline and colleagues were able to print a pressure sensor on a mannequin’s hand.

The base of the “skin” is silicone which when distributed via nozzle, came out as a gel. This contains silver particles to help conduct electricity. A coiled sensor was then printed in the center. Following that, the piece was engulfed in more silicon layers. Above and below the sensor lay electrodes in the form of a conductive ink. At last, a final, temporary layer was printed to hold everything together, while it solidified. The whole thing was just 4-millimeters wide and took mere minutes to carry out. Once it dried, the last layer was washed away, revealing a…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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