MINNEAPOLIS - Engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a revolutionary process for 3D printing stretchable electronic sensory devices that could give robots the ability to feel their environment.

The discovery is also a major step forward in printing electronics on real human skin. It also means you might be able to wear an electronic device on your skin. Pushing the limits excites Dr. Michael McAlpine.

The focus of his recent research has been on touch sensors. McAlpine is the lead mechanical engineer who created 3D printed bionic skin. McAlpine says they have been testing on a model hand which has unique sensing fabric. The stretchable electronic fabric the U of M created could be placed on surgical robots, giving surgeons the ability to feel during minimally invasive surgery. Right now, surgeons depend on their sight and cameras.

“These sensors could also make it easier for other robots to walk and interact with their environment,” he said.

In the near future, he said people could have the technology at home.

“Right now people are wearing these Apple watches, which are basically hard bricks tethered to your wrist. Imagine if you could take that watch and print it directly on your skin, so instead of having to wear the watch, the watch becomes a part of your body,” he said. “The materials we use are dirt cheap. So, in the future, maybe five years from now you can imagine this will only cost about $1,000."