3D Printing Emergency Sensor Networks

Safety first sign on industrial caution strip

Everyone talks about safety, but getting past the positive intentions of conversation and actually implementing the changes needed to ensure high levels of operational safety can be daunting. In addition to purchasing new products, technology, or infrastructure, an equal amount of investment is needed in personnel and training.

To help provide a solution to equipment malfunctions, fires, explosions, or material leaks, a team from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia has begun using 3D printing to develop less expensive, easy-to-operate sensor networks that could help plant workers respond to industrial incidents.

Existing early warning systems often rely on fixed sensors networks that require regular maintenance checks. The new system, developed by Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Atif Shamim, and his team, works by saturating high-risk areas with disposable packages of sensors (or nodes) that are linked wirelessly. The wireless connection means fewer fixed nodes are needed to raise an alarm.

This proof-of-concept study designed small sensors that can pick up changes in temperature, humidity and toxic gas levels. These small sensors were inkjet-printed onto a 3D-printed, two-centimeter node containing a battery, microelectronic circuit board, and multi-directional antenna.

According to Shamim, the use of the printing technologies allows for quicker, lower-cost, and environmentally-friendly production. Because the sensors can be created as needed, and in the quantity desired, there is the potential to eliminate waste and reduce the amount of time needed in maintaining the safety network.

Early use of the nodes has been positive, with the devices passing drop and temperature tests equivalent to the harsh environments into which they’ll be embedded. The nodes are built with a combination of 3D and inkjet printing because no 3D printer can currently deposit all the materials into the complex design with the precision needed.

However, the team is optimistic that future developments will eliminate the need for multiple processes in streamlining production even more. Additionally, they hope to remove the battery-powered functionality in favor of a self-sustainable power source so the sensors could be used in remote locations.

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