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A new method of creating flexible, printable electronics that combine sensors and processing circuitry was developed by MIT researchers. The work was supported by the DARPA SIMPLEX program through Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).

Covering a robot — or an airplane or a bridge, for example — with sensors will require a technology that is both flexible and cost-effective to manufacture in bulk. To demonstrate the feasibility of their new method, the researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have designed and built a 3D-printed device that responds to mechanical stresses by changing the color of a spot on its surface.

Subramanian Sundaram, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), who led the project said they were trying to see whether they could replicate sensorimotor pathways in nature inside a 3-D-printed object. “So we considered the simplest organism we could find” — the golden tortoise beetle, or “goldbug,” an insect whose exterior usually appears golden but turns reddish orange if the insect is poked or prodded, that is, mechanically stressed.

According to, the key innovation was to 3D-print directly on the plastic substrate (support structure) instead of placing components on top. That greatly increases the range of devices that can be created; a printed substrate could consist of many materials, interlocked in intricate but regular patterns, which broadens the range of functional materials that printable electronics can use.

Printed substrates also open the possibility of devices that, although printed as flat sheets, can fold themselves up into more complex, three-dimensional shapes.

“I am very impressed with both the concept and the realization of the system,” says Hagen Klauk, who leads the Organic Electronic Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research, in Stuttgart, Germany. “The approach of printing an entire optoelectronic system — including the substrate and all the components — by depositing all the materials, including solids and liquids, by 3-D printing is certainly novel, interesting, and useful, and the demonstration of the functional system confirms that the approach is also doable. By fabricating the substrate on the fly, the approach is particularly useful for improvised manufacturing environments where dedicated substrate materials may not be available.”