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Research Horizons

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Printed Circuits

For pilots, having instant access to data about their aircraft is crucial to safely navigating the skies. Researchers at Georgia Tech are working on a technology that could generate information at an unprecedented level of detail via a network of sensors embedded throughout the airplane like a nervous system.

The concept uses a 3-D printer in tandem with a separate machine that prints electronic circuitry, allowing the network of sensors to be produced along with the aircraft part and fully integrated throughout the material.

“When these sensors are combined with new control and command systems that can process the data, pilots should be able to pinpoint the precise location of a problem,” said Chuck Zhang, a professor in the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

The research is one example of the work ongoing at Georgia Tech in the rapidly growing field of printed electronics. In recent years, advances have resulted in new machines capable of printing custom circuits on a variety of surfaces — rigid or flexible, delicate or sturdy, flat or shaped.

The new printers use conductive inks — made from a variety of materials from silver to polyimide — to “print” the circuits in much the same way that an inkjet prints words on paper.

Although most Americans may be unfamiliar with the concept of a printed electronic device, chances are they’ve come into contact with them — from the security stickers on retail goods to plastic badges used to open electronic door locks. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have been a mainstay of retail inventory control and proximity door locks for years.

In the latest wave of innovation around printed electronics, industry demand for flexible electronics has been a driving force, Zhang said.

“They want flexible solar energy cells, batteries, and circuits, and the traditional way of making electronics with a wafer of silicon doesn’t work,” he said.

Traditional electronics are also expensive to produce, and chipmakers typically need to produce large quantities to bring down the cost. That limits their ability to produce smaller quantities of more specialized or customized electronics.

By contrast, making printed electronics is a form of additive manufacturing. The circuits begin as designs on a computer, which connects to a printing machine capable of forming the thin conductive lines that make up a circuit. And in contrast to typical 3-D printers, electronics printers can generate a circuit in a matter of minutes, forming lines a few inches per second.

“If you have a special need, we can do prototype circuits or electronic products,” Zhang said. “On one day, you could print four products for one customer, and the next day you could print a different four for a different customer.”

The ability to create custom sensors one at a time also opens up the option for researchers to add greater functionality to other products, such as putting strain sensors on 3-D printed heart valve models.

For Georgia Tech’s research project to create a network of printed sensors in aircraft, one goal is to address a shortcoming of existing sensor systems, which rely on high-frequency signals to monitor structural faults. Those systems can be difficult to implement in large structures.

In theory, the system of sensors would enable a pilot or vehicle operator to have more knowledge about potential aircraft problems and make better decisions about how to handle them. The National Science Foundation is funding this cyberphysical system (CPS) project.

Josh Brown is a senior science writer at Georgia Tech. A journalist by training, he’s spent the past decade writing about economic development, medical research, and scientific innovation.

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