What would you do with a thin piece of plastic that is sensitive to touch? Jupiter Hu, director of the flexible electronics technology division at Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), has a few ideas for a technology that allows pressure sensors to be printed on sheets of plastic.
He envisions it used in semiconductor manufacturing, to monitor wafer polishing. In healthcare, he says, a thin sheet of sensors laid under a mattress could provide early warning of pressure pointsthat could turn into bedsores. Smart phones could come with a rollout keyboard—no more fat-finger errors. With weight sensors molded into luggage handles, your suitcase (right) could weigh itself and warn you that you’d over packed before you got to the airport.
And printable sensors make a really cool drum, as demonstrated in the video, top.
These printable sensors are a form of Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). ITRI calls its version of the sensors Micro Deformable Piezoresistive Sensor Technology. ITRI is not the only research group working on flexible MEMS technology—researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are stamping MEMS on plastic. But Hu says ITRI’s version can cover a larger area at a lower cost than other approaches.
While none of these products are on the market yet, luggage manufacturers and other companies are currently testing the technology. ITRI has spun out a company to market the technology, and has set up a manufacturing line for mass production.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.