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Manufacturing Process Devised for Skin-Patch Electronics

Epidermal electronic patch

Epidermal electronic patch (University of Texas at Austin School of Engineering)

30 September 2015. Engineers and materials scientists designed a manufacturing process for electronic health monitors worn like tattoos that cut their production time to about 20 minutes. The team led by engineering professor Nanshu Lu at University of Texas in Austin reported its findings last week in the journal Advanced Materials (paid subscription required).

Lu and other researchers already developed electronic circuits in the lab printed on transparent skin-safe plastics and worn on the skin like a temporary tattoo, making it possible to easily record a person’s key health indicators, such as heart rate and brain activity. An obstacle to widespread use of these epidermal electronic systems, however, is the expensive and laborious process for making the patches, each requiring extensive staff time and facilities similar to clean rooms used for semiconductors.

The UT-Texas process applies current industrial processes similar to printing to produce the patches. Their method begins with a programmable bench-top cutting machine that forms and cuts circuit patterns on thin sheets of a metal substrate. The circuit patterns are then transferred to a transparent polymer material used for the skin patches with a thermal-release process, where adding heat allows the circuits to adhere to the polymer.

This cut-and-paste method has another major advantage: it does not rely on rigid wafers, like those used in semiconductors, to produce the skin patches. As a result, the researches believe they can adapt their techniques to roll-to-roll production processes, similar to printing, thus dramatically reducing their costs.

“One of the most attractive aspects of epidermal electronics is their ability to be disposable,” says Lu in a university statement. “If you can make them inexpensively, say for $1, then more people will be able to use them more frequently. This will open the door for a number of mobile medical applications and beyond.”

In their paper, the team reports on tests of their manufactured skin patches that they found picked up stronger signals than current medical devices, including an electrocardiogram. “We are trying to add more types of sensors including blood pressure and oxygen saturation monitors to the low-cost patch,” adds Lu.

The university says a patent is pending on on the process. Lu is a co-founder of a start-up company Stretch Med Inc., also in Austin, a developer of electronic medical sensors, for commercializing the technology.

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