U of M researchers develop technology to 3-D print onto skin

Groundbreaking research from the University of Minnesota has just drastically increased the possibilities for 3-D printing technology.

Built to accommodate for a person’s natural movements, U of M researchers can successfully place 3-D printing on a human hand.

“The key innovation is first of all developing electronic inks that can be printed and cure at room temperature,” said University of Minnesota Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Michael McAlpine.

Professor McAlpine points out the end result looks sort of like an electronic tattoo, but the needle doing the 3-D printing doesn’t puncture the skin. He believes the applications are endless because the entire printer cost just $400 dollars and is completely portable. To remove the printing, it can either be washed off with water or peeled off with tweezers.

“You can be a soldier out in the field and you need a chemical biological warfare sensor or solar panel, so now you just take your printer out of your backpack and print a solar panel on your wrist or chemical or biological warfare sensor on your wrist,” said Professor McAlpine.

That vision is closer to reality because McAlpine has been in talks with the armed forces throughout the yearlong research project. 

“The Army in particular is interested in this concept of autonomy,” he said. “You can just imagine the sort of opportunities that are going to open up.”

Zhijie Zhu is the graduate student leading this research. He’s most excited about cells being 3-D printed the same way, directly on the skin of a mouse, in order to help heal a wound. The potential could mean bringing a printer to a patient and 3-D printing medical treatment on the scene of an accident.

“Like to helping people a have medical treatment at home, not necessarily to go to hospital,” said Zhu. “Or even in those counties where high standard of medical treatment is not feasible.”

Now applying for a patent, Professor McApline believes we could all start seeing this sort of 3-D printing within the next few years. 

“It represents the next wave of technology,” he said. “The post-computer era, so people are really excited about it.”

These researchers believe one day we all could be wearing this technology. Instead of smart watches, this technology could allow you to print your watch – right on your wrist.