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Plastic “Skin” Could Revolutionize Prosthetics

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Three-dimensional printing is stunning the world with new bursts of invention at such a furious pace these days that it should surprise no one to learn of its latest gambit: plastic “skin” so technologically advanced that it can detect both pressure and pain.


This recent marvel, a product of engineers at Stanford University, represents the first incarnation of a flexible, skin-like material that can transmit electric signals directly to the human brain that alert it to sensations in much the same way the rest of the naturally wired nervous system does.


This artificial membrane is a two-ply plastic construct, with the top layer acting as a sensor and the lower layer sending electrical signals and translating them into biochemical pulses that are compatible with nerve cells.


Stanford researchers worked on this project with the Xerox firm PARC, a Palo Alto, CA-based R&D player with a distinguished reputation for its contributions to IT and hardware systems celebrated for developing technology that uses an inkjet printer to deposit flexible circuits onto plastic.


The 17-person team responsible for this innovation has ambitious plans to further enhance the material’s capabilities, courtesy of the inkjet printing fabrication process’s practice of laying flexible, sensor-equipped layers atop one another.


Eventually, the hope is to equip the “skin” with enough sensitivity to distinguish among subtle surfaces—corduroy and silk, for example—and temperatures—a hot cup of tea versus a cold glass of water. Its application as the superficial layer to a prosthetic limb would undoubtedly prove a boon to transplant patients beyond anything the medical world has seen thus far.

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