3D-printed electronic tattoos could charge up battlefield warfare

Researchers have developed a low-cost method to ink electronics on the skin, paving the way for military applications.

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A team of scientists from the University of Minnesota has used a custom 3D printer to print electronics on human hands.

These electronic “tattoos” could be used for a number of purposes, including printing temporary sensors on soldiers to detect chemical or biological agents, or even acting as solar cells for charging critical electronic devices.

The new, low-cost technology has also been utilized to print biological cells on a mouse’s skin wound, which may pave the way for direct skin graft printing out in the field.

“I’m fascinated by the idea of printing electronics or cells directly on the skin,” said Michael McAlpine, the study’s lead author and the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”

screen-shot-2018-04-27-at-08-24-55.jpg McAlpine group, University of Minnesota

According to McAlpine, the printed markings could become a “Swiss Army Knife” for a variety of purposes made possible through one 3D printing tool.

The 3D printing technique is different from most as it allows for the body’s small movements during the process. Temporary markers are placed on the skin and the surface is scanned, while the printer uses custom software to adjust to movements in real-time, which keeps circuit designs in place.

See also: Sensors under the skin monitor your alcohol intake

An ink made from silver flakes which can cure at room temperature is used, which makes the direct printer-to-skin process safe and keeps hands from burning. The majority of today’s 3D printers require extreme heat to cure which would ruin human skin if it was used as a surface.

The temporary “tattoo” can be removed by washing it away in water or simply peeling it off.

“We are excited about the potential of this new 3D-printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400,” said McAlpine. “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.”

The study has been published in the academic journal Advanced Materials.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Regenerative Medicine Minnesota.

Previous and related coverage

Watch: Haunting video of 3D-printed morphing matter that folds to assemble itself

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It looks like something out of a dream, and it could be the future of manufacturing.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a process that allows plastic printed with a cheap 3D printer to fold itself into predetermined shapes with the application of heat.

The complexity of the origami-like shapes being produced in the Morphing Matter Lab even in early tests gives researchers hope that the material may one day be used produce flat-pack products that can be assembled quickly with a heat gun.

Last week I wrote about a robot that was able to assemble a flat-pack chair from Ikea in minutes. Professor Yao’s material would eliminate the need for complex assembly altogether.


Leading the research is Lining Yao, assistant professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and director of the Morphing Matter Lab, which studies next-gen materials. Professor Yao has suggested the material could be used to build emergency shelters that can pop into form with the warmth of the sun.

Self-folding systems are a big research focus in materials science right now, as we’ve covered before. But previous efforts have focused on materials produced using complex techniques available only in grad labs.

The self-folding properties of the material Yao’s team is working with, however, will be familiar to anyone who’s had the frustrating experience of operating a cheap 3D printer.

The CMU team used an FDM printer, which is about as bottom-barrel as they come. One problem with fused filament fabrication is that the fuse points typically have variable densities in the final printed structure. As a result, those points are prone to warp under stress, such as when cooled or heated.

Yao and her team simply created a model that took advantage of this natural warping. By controlling and varying the speed at which thermoplastic material is laid down by the printer and combining warp-prone filaments with rubber materials that better resist stress, they were able to create structures that had predictable and sequential warping patterns.

“We wanted to see how self-assembly could be made more democratic–accessible to many users,” she said.

When a printed plastic object comes out of the printer, it’s flat. That’s an attractive advantage, as it makes the object easier to ship than an object in its final assembled form. When heat is applied to the flat sheet (in the video, the water is hot enough to turn the plastic gummy but not melt it) the folding process is triggered.

Different materials could be used to control the level of heat necessary to trigger folding.

“We believe the general algorithm and existing material systems should enable us to eventually make large, strong self-folding objects, such as chairs, boats, or even satellites,” said Jianzhe Gu, an HCII research intern.

The CMU team partnered with researchers from Zhejiang University, Syracuse University, the University of Aizu, and TU Wien on the project.

More robotics

This Startup Is Tackling Human Trafficking By Training Women In 3D-Printed Jewellery Design

Photo courtesy of Free-D.

The Free-D founders.

Right now there are 24.9 million people trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

It is a gendered crisis: 71% of people who have been trafficked are women and girls.

One reason so many young women find themselves at risk is because of a lack of education, says Katherine Prescott, the cofounder of Free-D, a business offering training in 3D-printed jewelry design.  

“They don’t have a high level of skill or literacy skills, which means that job opportunities are really low, and it’s through the search of trying to find employment that many get taken advantage of,” she explains.

Today Free-D—a portmanteau of “3D” and “freed”—isn’t just empowering human trafficking survivors. It also aims to train up all kinds of vulnerable women, who might be homeless or escaping domestic violence, or “at risk”, so they too can find stable long-term jobs.

It’s also just been accepted onto F-Lane, the Vodafone Institute’s Berlin-based female empowerment business accelerator—an experience Prescott describes as “dying and going to feminist heaven”.

“Te startup space in London is not necessarily focused on impact but at F-Lane, where people are all from all different backgrounds, they all care.”

Prescott has drawn up a business plan to take Free-D global and will be pitching next month at the Re:publica digital forum in Berlin and the Arch Summit in Luxembourg.

Photo courtesy of Free-D.

Women learning about 3D-printing with Free-D.

How Free-D works

Katherine Prescott started Free-D in London in 2016 with cofounder Siavash Mahdavi. Both had spent numerous years working in 3D-printing, having met at Mahdavi’s 3D software startup Within Technologies (acquired by Autodesk for $88.5 million in 2011).

Run from offices in Battersea, the pair decided that the best testbed for Free-D would be India, where 14 million women live in slavery, and even those who find freedom are not safe (40% are forced back into slavery due to failed rehabilitation efforts).

The startup partnered with NGOs like The Shanta Foundation (which supports vulnerable women in India), and manufacturers like Imaginarium (the biggest 3D-printing company in India) to run a series of one-to-three day workshops throughout 2017.

Getting her homemade 3D printer around bustling Mumbai in an Uber wasn’t always easy, but seeing how quickly women went from being “fearful of computers to laughing, joking and making things” spurred Prescott on.  

Now, Free-D has launched its first longterm pilot in Mumbai which will take place over nine months: 10 women are benefitting from the combination of psychological support and 3D-printing training on the programme, which closes with internships at Imaginarium.

“We’re trying to build up a curriculum that can take someone from having zero skills up to being an expert in the field,” says Prescott.

Photo courtesy of Free-D.

Free-D empowers vulnerable women with 3D-printing.

Transforming Free-D into a global business

Although the company is currently being self-funded by Mahdavi (with around £100,000 ring-fenced toward funding the pilot), Prescott hopes to later raise a further £500,000 to enable the business to scale internationally.

Part of this will include ensuring that Free-D can grow into a profitable business. “We’ve seen so many NGOs all chasing after the same pots of money,” notes Prescott.

In future, the main source of Free-D’s revenue will come from companies paying to support the training of future employees, says Prescott.  

“We’re actually solving a big problem for the manufacturers who are adopting 3D-printing,” she explains. “There’s a big talent gap, globally not just in India.”

Different programmes could also be developed for different geographies, which could work on a “buy-one-fund-one model”, adds the founder.

Prescott is keen to see the Free-D platform grow outside of India, noting the presence of global 3D-printing firms (and potential partners) like Materialize (which has factories in Germany, Belgium, Poland and the Czech Republic) and Shapeways (which has factories in Eindhoven in The Netherlands, and Queens, and Seattle in the U.S.).

Even brands like Adidas (which is currently investing in customization-first SpeedFactories) could be involved, says Prescott: “If customization is the way the market is going, there’s going to be a lot of these spaces springing up, and a need for talent.”

Could Prescott’s ambition to become the “go-to education company” for 3D-printing see her social ambitions flourish?

For the sake of the millions in modern-day slavery, we hope so.

Rize Uses Voxel Control for Augmented Reality in 3D-Printed Parts

Rize Uses Voxel Control for Augmented Reality in 3D-Printed Parts
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on April 12, 2018 | | 121 views

Rize Inc. emerged from stealth almost two years ago, unveiling an office-ready 3D printer with unique capabilities including minimal post-processing and the ability to print ink directly on printed parts. Now, Rize has unveiled the first practical applications of this inkwriting technology with what it calls Digitally Augmented Parts, which can utilize embedded ink patterns for augmented reality and other Industrial 4.0 technologies.

A part 3D printed with APD featuring an embedded QR code. (Image courtesy of Rize.)

A part 3D printed with APD featuring an embedded QR code. (Image courtesy of Rize.)

Rize’s Augmented Polymer Deposition (APD) combines thermoplastic extrusion with inkjet printing to bring elements of voxel control to the 3D printing process. This includes printing a special interface material in between the printed object and its support structures, allowing for quick support removal. It also means that Rize can integrate traditional 2D printing inks into the process, so that images, text and symbols can be written onto the surface of parts.

Rize’s Digitally Augmented Parts utilize this latter capability to embed markers, such as QR codes, onto parts that can provide traceability through the manufacturing process and lifecycle of the parts. A smartphone app can then be used to scan the code and call up the information. Rize is emphasizing the use of the 3MF file format, which is meant to include information beyond the simple geometry of a 3D file, for such an application. In addition to details like color, 3MF can carry data related to a component’s origin.

“This is the first step towards embedding intelligent capabilities within the part and connecting them through a digital thread into the digital twin of the part,” said Rize President and CEO Andy Kalambi, who was recently interviewed by engineering.com. “Rize is leading the integration of additive manufacturing into the digital ecosystem, which will redefine the user and customer and experience, and ultimately scale the technology to an entirely new segment of commercial and industrial users.”

Parts can be 3Dprinted to feature QR codes that can call up manufacturing information in a smartphone or tablet app. (Image courtesy of Rize.)

Parts can be 3Dprinted to feature QR codes that can call up manufacturing information in a smartphone or tablet app. (Image courtesy of Rize.)

As we learned from our earlier interview with Rize in 2016, APD, in some respects, mirrors HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), in that the use of inkjetting enables the introduction of functional inks. HP actually demonstrated a similar application for MJF, showing how an AR app can be used to scan a 3D-printed part with an embedded QR code.

Similar to some of the future capabilities that HP is promising with its MJF, Rize could also one day release inks that are electrically conductive, thermo-insulating or thermo-conducting. Though HP has substantial size and capital behind it, it may be that Rize, which has the flexibility of a small startup, will release these products sooner. Kalambi mentioned in our interview with him that the company is working on its future printers. Potential customers may have their fingers crossed that these new materials are in the works as well.

To learn more, visit the Rize website.