Additive Manufacturing Holds Key to Efficient, Cost-Effective Development of Flexible Electronics

Researchers demonstrate how additive manufacturing can be used to combine rigid components with elastomers to develop flexible, or “stretchable” electronics.

Flexibility is poised to be the next-generation form factor for electronics. However, the rigidity of typical electronic components makes it no easy task to manufacture these type of devices with the core technologies currently available for them in an efficient or economical way.

Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) think that additive manufacturing is the key to solving this problem. A team led by Heng Pan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has demonstrated how this type of manufacturing process can be used to combine rigid components with elastomers to develop flexible, or “stretchable” electronics .

“We believe additive manufacturing can be a scalable, economical and multi-materials manufacturing approach for stretchable electronics,” said Heng Pan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T.

Additive manufacturing is a process that allows for the creation of 3D objects layer by layer, using metals, ceramics, or other materials. It is also known as 3D printing, but is used to describe a similar process for a wider range of materials, researchers said.


Professor Heng Pan of Missouri University of Science and Technology working  graduate student Brandon Ludwig. Pan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, led a team that demonstrated how additive manufacturing can play a key role in developing stretchable electronics by joining elastomers and rigid components. (Source: Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T)

Currently, many stretchable electronics are currently patterned using expensive lithography tools. Pan’s team, however, has demonstrated that stretchable electronics can be fabricated by the additive manufacturing process of aerosol printing, “which is a scalable and economical additive-manufacturing approach,” he said.

The Missouri S&T researchers published a paper about their research in the journal Micromachines.Their work focused on a type of conductor that can be built on or set into the surface of elastomer, a known polymer. Researchers are eyeing these conductors to replace the rigid circuit boards that power many of today’s electronic devices.

As its name suggests, elastomer is a flexible material with high elasticity, allowing it to be bent, stretched, and twisted repeatedly without greatly impacting its performance. However, to use it as a material to develop flexible electronics, researchers have been challenged to overcome mismatches between the flexible elastomer base and the more brittle electronic conductors, researchers explained in their paper.

That’s where additive manufacturing can come into play, the team found. This process could be used to print thin layers of highly conductive materials onto an elastomer surface for use in flexible electronics, Pan said. Specifically for its work, the team employed direct aerosol printing--which involves spraying a conductive material and integrating it with a stretchable substrate--to develop sensors that can be placed on skin, he said.

“For stretchable electronics, we could achieve multi-materials integration and complicated shaped device manufacturing in an economical way,” Pan said.

Types of devices that could be manufactured this way include wearable sensors for health monitoring and sensors for environment monitoring, as well as energy-harvesting devices, he added.

The team plans to continue its work by scaling up the manufacturing of

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