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Hi-res inkjet could hold the key to commercial production of a new epidermal electronic system that is being developed by a team of scientists at the University of Illinois.

Dubbed smart skin, the technology's current incarnation uses a transfer printing fabrication system to create flexible devices with minute circuitry that can be applied to the skin and retain integrity even when bent, twisted or otherwise deformed. And because of the scale of the electronics involved, they do not need battery power deriving charge from solar components, or others designed to take advantage of the movement of the patient.

Potential applications look likely to focus on the biomedical markets, replicating devices such as heart monitors that are currently either intrusive or not mobile.

Rogers told PrintWeek: "We are focused on healthcare generally, and physiological status monitoring, physical rehabilitation and human-machine interfaces in particular."

However, a new company, mc10, has been set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts to commercialise the technology, and is currently working on a project with sports brand Reebok.

However, the team at the University of Illinois, led by John Rogers, believes it has broad applications such as enabling patients with muscular or neurological diseases to communicate with computers and have already demonstrated a prototype that can recognise speech based on muscle movements and shown how it can be used to control video games.

With smart skin devices less than 50microns thick, fabrication will be a key factor in its success. Rogers said that conventional printed electronics methods such as pick-and-place units were not suitable. "So we've developed soft stamping methods as alternatives," he said. "We are also interested in high-resolution forms of inkjet but we did not have to use such methods for these particular devices.

"Printing of this type might, however, have the potential to reduce costs in manufacturing."