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For the first time, researchers have used a customized, low-cost 3D printer to print electronics on a real hand. The technology could be used by soldiers on the battlefield to print temporary sensors on their bodies to detect chemical or biological agents or solar cells to charge essential electronics. The technique could lead to new medical treatments for wound healing and direct printing of grafts for skin disorders.

Michael McAlpine, the study’s lead author and the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said they were excited about the potential of this new 3D printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400. “We imagine that a soldier could pull this printer out of a backpack and print a chemical sensor or other electronics they need, directly on the skin. It would be like a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of the future with everything they need all in one portable 3D printing tool.”

According to, one of the key innovations of the technique is that this printer can adjust to small movements of the body during printing. Temporary markers are placed on the skin and the skin is scanned. The printer uses computer vision to adjust to movements in real-time. The printer can track the hand using the markers and adjust in real-time to the movements and contours of the hand, so printing of the electronics keeps its circuit shape.

This 3D printing technique uses a specialized ink made of silver flakes that can cure and conduct at room temperature. This is different from other 3D printing inks that need to cure at high temperatures (up to 100°C) and would burn the hand.

To remove the electronics, the person can simply peel off the electronic device with tweezers or wash it off with water.

In addition to electronics, the new 3D printing technique paves the way for many other applications, including printing cells to help those with skin diseases.