Research

Stretchable electronics embedded into clothing and worn like a second skin

The growth prospects of the global wearable and stretchable electronics market are considerable.
Say goodbye to cumbersome activity trackers and bulky smartwatches! We will soon see a new generation of flexible films that mould to our body like a second skin to monitor our performance and vital signs.

Researchers in Tampere launched a project to develop stretchable electronics back in autumn 2018. The title of the two-year project is a play on words: Elastronics. It combines the words elastic and electronics.

“We talk about stretchable electronics but the terms flexible and wearable electronics are also commonly used. In the future it will be possible to attach these filmy smart devices to the skin and embed them into different materials,” describes Professor Matti Mäntysalo. He leads the Elastronics project at Tampere University.

The global wearable and stretchable electronics market is poised for significant growth. The forecasts are based on the worldwide sales of smartwatches and activity trackers that exceeded one hundred million units in 2017.   

Wearable electronics is a subject of intense scientific interest around the world. According to Mäntysalo, up to 600 scientific papers are published on the topic on an annual basis but the technology is not yet ready for commercialisation.  

“We are only halfway towards solving the challenges, as major questions concerning the technical requirements and reliability of consumer applications still remain unanswered,” says Mäntysalo.

The main obstacle is finding suitable new materials for stretchable electronics. In addition, researchers have to figure out how to integrate diverse technology into a device as thin as a human hair and how to transfer data from a minuscule chip, for example, to a mobile phone.   

Electronics as soft as silk

With stretchable electronics, it will be possible to develop new types of smart clothing and adhesive smart bandages.

“Softer-than-skin electronics would be fully unobtrusive and comfortable to wear. When integrated into clothing, the devices could measure our vital signs under different conditions. For example, we could have a small screen on our sleeve for displaying messages,” envisions Mäntysalo. 

In the healthcare sector, the devices could improve the routine care of patients who could be closely monitored without being restricted to a bed.  

Hub of expertise in stretchable electronics  

In addition to the Printable Electronics Research Group headed by Mäntysalo, researchers at Tampere University have a wealth of expertise that is needed to develop stretchable electronics. For example, Mäntysalo’s group carries out projects in collaboration with researchers who specialise in medical technology.   

”By pooling our expertise, we can establish an international reputation for our research in this field,” he says. 

The Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology at the new Tampere University, which was established through the merger of Tampere University of Technology and the University of Tampere on 1 January 2019, brings together expertise in medicine and technology and opens up new opportunities for collaboration.  

High-quality research infrastructure attracts talented researchers  

Before the merger, Tampere University of Technology made significant investments in research equipment for printable electronics. One of the latest acquisitions is a state-of-the-art inkjet printer that offers extreme precision and control.

”Considering the rapid advances being made in printable electronics, it is important that our high-quality infrastructure allows us to stay at the forefront of research and support the renewal of the electronics industry in Finland,” says Mäntysalo.   

Manufactured in France, the state-of-the art printer is capable of printing functional, layered and conductive materials. The multi-function machine enables researchers to not only perform quick tests on materials but also conduct complex experiments that meet industry needs.   

“A state-of-the-art infrastructure improves our R&D services, raises our international academic profile and makes our University an increasingly attractive partner for experimental and material-intensive research projects in Finland and abroad,” Mäntysalo says. 

Interested? Check out the next TechBites event on 28.3.2019!

ELASTRONICS

  • Two-year research project with a €2.5 million budget launched to develop stretchable electronics.
  • Potential applications in healthcare and sports.
  • Partner: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
  • A co-innovation project that is funded by Business Finland and seeks to transfer research results to industry at an accelerated pace to support the development of business activities and new products with export potential. 
  • The project involves Nexstim that develops medical technology, GE Healthcare that specialises in patient monitoring and Suunto that manufactures wrist computers and heart rate sensors. The other partner companies are Inkron, Screentec, Flexbright and Forciot.

Text:Päivi Eskelinen
Photo: Olli-Pekka Latvala