KALAMAZOO. Mich.—Technology allowing small finger movements to remotely signal a model car can aid in the continued development of flexible sensors that can conform to the curves of a human body or stretch across the shape of an object or structure.
Western Michigan University engineering students were introduced this year to the emerging field of flexible hybrid electronics, an innovative process that combines elements of the electronics industry with that of the high-precision printing industry.
As part of their yearlong senior engineering design project, Devin Birchfield, Xavier Jackson and Thomas Pasternak manufactured flexible sensors using a new printing method called laser carbonization.
These sensors were then implemented into a glove designed to control a radio-controlled car wirelessly, based on finger movements. For right-handers, bending the index finger moves the car forward, the middle finger turns right, the thumb left, and the pinkie backwards. For left-handers, directions for the middle finger and thumb are reversed.
"We worked quite a bit on the calibration, so that the car doesn't move when a hand is naturally resting," explains Jackson of Sterling Heights.
"It is supposed to be as easy, if not easier, than using a controller you just hold in your hand," adds Pasternak of Pinckney.
However, printing and troubleshooting the most durable yet flexible materials to secure the sensors was challenging, the electrical engineering students agreed.
"The fabrication process is very finicky. If we did something wrong one step of the way, it would have changed the outcome," says Jackson.
Their model provided research into this new printing method that will be utilized in the college's Center for Advanced Smart Sensors and Structures Lab in the future and provided a real-world application for FHE’s—flexible hybrid electronics. Additionally, the model can be used to study future FHE applications at WMU.
Health care is currently the strongest FHE segment, where performance and reliability are critical, says Dr. Massood Atashbar, WMU professor of electrical and computer engineering, who advised the project along with graduate student Tony Hanson.
By packaging electronic components on a flexible stretchable surface, technologies printed through this innovative manufacturing processes can be attached to curved, irregular shapes and stretched across objects and even humans. They could be used from everything to monitoring people's vital signs to dramatically reducing the size and weight of electronic systems and robotics.
"It was an awesome experience to go through the entire process of making a sensor," says Birchfield of Jackson.
"I learned extensive amount about a field that I didn't even know existed a year ago," adds Pasternak.
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