US Air Force Research Laboratory & Harvard develop new 3-D printing technique for flexible electronics

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), along with its partner Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, has invented a new hybrid 3-D printing method for flexible electronics.

The new printing method uses additive manufacturing to integrate soft, conductive inks with a material substrate to create stretchable, wearable electronic devices.

AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate research scientist, Dr Dan Berrigan, said: “This is the first time a 3-D printer has been shown, in a single process, to print stretchable sensors with integrated microelectronic components.”

“Starting from nothing, the printer builds an entire stretchable circuit that blends the mechanical durability of printed components with the robust performance of off-the-shelf electronics.”

Scientists at AFRL demonstrated how a 3-D printer can be used to print conductive traces of flexible, silver-infused thermoplastic polyurethane.

A pick-and-place method was then used to set microcontroller chips and LED lights into the flexible substrate, augmented by an empty printer nozzle and vacuum system to create the hybrid system, the USAF stated.

A team from Harvard printed sensors and placed microelectronics onto a spandex sleeve to respond to the movement of the wearer’s arm. A pressure sensor was also created for shoes to sense and monitor gait.

AFRL researchers tested the processes in the lab and are investigating the possibility of using the same methodologies to build antennas and sensors into structures.

During the test, the additively manufactured, hybrid-electronic devices could maintain function even after being stretched by more than 30% from its original size.

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