Multi-functional, self-sustainable sensing components for smart skin

Electronic skin (e-skin) is a thin, flexible and adaptable electronic material that mimics the functions and properties of human skin and can be widely used in healthcare, industry, robotics and a new generation of prostheses. For example, e-skin enables the detection of contact and heat on machines and devices, increasing their intelligence and opportunities for interaction with the environment and human. In the coming decades, e-skin will be one of the key technologies in the societal shift towards intelligent automation and human and machine evolution.
Smartskin käsi tavoittelee metallista kättä.

Researchers in Microelectronics Research Unit at the University of Oulu have started a new project aiming to develop the technical implementation of a new type of sensor component used in e-skins and to prepare for its future commercialization. The sensor component in question, abbreviated KNBNNO, is based on a material developed at the University of Oulu that is capable of recognizing mechanical (e.g. contact, pressure & force), thermal (e.g. temperature change & heat) and optical (e.g. visible light & ultraviolet) signals simultaneously. This technical breakthrough expands the capabilities of many current intelligent sensor technologies.

The project will further develop the KNBNNO material into a multifunctional sensor component for e-skin production that can be used in robotics, prostheses, healthcare and skin-attached electronics. KNBNNO's uniquely competitive advantage is the combination of mechanical, thermal and optical detections in the same thin material, making it the simplest possible multi-detection element in the market for e-skins. The success of the project and the commercialization of the material in the future will enable the development and manufacture of smarter, cheaper and more efficient robots, prostheses and products that use e-skin in healthcare. The project is funded by Business Finland and University of Oulu.

Tell about your team and the expertise of the members, who are you?

We have a research team and a commercialization team. The research team consists of Dr. Yang Bai, Dr. Jaakko Palosaari and Dr. Jari Juuti. We are all researchers from the Microelectronics Research Unit (MIC) at the University of Oulu.

Bai invented the technology that is being developed in this project, and he has specialized in advanced materials for energy harvesting and sensing for nearly 10 years including doctoral study. He is now Assistant Professor of Small-power Self-sufficient Sensor System. Palosaari is a postdoctoral researcher in MIC. He has been designing, fabricating and characterizing piezoelectric devices for over 10 years. He holds wide experience in implementation of the mechanical structures to ambient vibrations and execution of measurements in both laboratory and practical applications. Juuti has over 20 years’ experience in R&D of piezoelectric materials, functional composites, actuators, motors and energy harvesters for micromechanical, high frequency and printed electronics applications. He has contributed to dozens of research projects funded by EU, Academy of Finland, TEKES, MATINE and private companies.

The commercialization team contains Miika Miinala, M.Sc., Eira Hurskainen, M.Sc., Professor Janne Haverinen and Pekka Räsänen, M.Sc.

Miinala holds a degree in international business and he carries wide commercial experience from international sales and business development, corporate finance and management consultancy for various industries. Hurskainen is a business professional with an engineering background and is an experienced market researcher and business developer. Haverinen is the founder of Indoor Atlas, an entrepreneur, inventor and scientist. He has over 10 granted patents and 25 patent applications. He is also Professor of Practice in University of Oulu. Räsänen is an intellectual property expert and has rich experience in IPR management and technology transfer.

What is your viewpoint to the smart skin and how does it differ from others?

The core background technology in this project is a novel functional material that can simultaneously convert light, heat and motion into electricity, thus can be used for multi-sensing systems and/or multi-source energy harvesting. There are many markets this material can have a value in and smart skin is one of the options that we want to further develop. By combining this new functional material, KNBNNO, the ever used three different sensors will be combined into just one, saving two thirds of the space as well as cost. The most important point our solution differs from others is the multiple sensing functions in just one material or component, or say an all-in-one sensing solution, fundamentally advanced compared to multi-sensing solution competitors.

Who will benefit from the research results and how?

One example is robotics. In industry, robotic hands, limbs and vehicles have been used in automatic mass production or carrying out tasks in harsh/remote places. They need many sensing functions, like pressure, acceleration, friction, temperature, light, etc. that can mimic human skin sensing function in order to provide precise feedback to the operators so that they can give a better control to those robotics remotely. Using our technology, one small area of robotic fingertip can ‘feel’ like a human skin by detecting signals of light, heat, force, etc. Our solution is much simpler to design and integrate compared to existing solutions. Therefore, the users, for example robotics industry, can benefit from significantly reduced costs of materials and engineering.

What will be the key result of your research, what do you expect to achieve?

The key research result will be a proof of concept that demonstrates the benefits and functionality of our technology in different sectors including robotics, wellbeing, wearable devices, etc. The key result for commercialization activities is to establish a relationship with a potential partner and identify a future business model, in order to prepare to enter the market after the project.

What is your target in near future? Why this subject is important and interesting?

Smart sensing and Internet of Things (IoT) are the foundations of concepts like smart cities/societies and industry 4.0 that will be realized in the near future. Countless number of sensors will be installed in every corner of human life to provide security, comfort and convenience. Our technology is solving the challenge of sensing as many signals, and collecting as many data, as possible at the same time with limited space, size and area of the sensors, i.e. miniaturization of sensing devices. Ultimately, it will contribute to the development of the smart concepts mentioned above. KNBNNO and its follow-up materials families have the potential to replace complex procedures of producing battery powered multi-sensors with a single, size-adjustable material.

What issue, phenomenon, question or context do the research results concern / cover?

One issue is to find a proper application area for our novel material, KNBNNO. As it was derived from curiosity-driven scientific research without a targeted market at the beginning, the task now is to narrow down its application area and try to open the market over there.

Who are affected by the topic and results?

Anyone utilizing sensors or looking for multi-sensing solutions in industry or consumer electronics can get benefits. The first beneficiaries of KNBNNO will be the sensor and consumer electronics manufacturers who embrace this new technology and apply it to their products. These are followed by the companies that design and implement smart buildings & infrastructure, sensor networks and industrial automation lines that require sensing of temperature, pressure, movement, humidity and light.

After that comes e-textiles and smart skins developed for health and remote patient monitoring. At some point exoskeletons and robots requiring human skin-like multifunctional sensing will also utilize the technology. Finally, the next generation of prostheses that are able to sense environmental stimuli can start to explore the material’s sensing and energy harvesting capabilities.

What is the scientific significance of the expected results?

A success of this project will inspire the scientific community to dedicate to further developing the material to make it more capable of doing multi-sensing and multi-source energy harvesting tasks.

Are you planning to found a company in the future?

Founding a company is one of the options for future business model after the project. Although we prefer this route, we will carefully analyze several options for commercialization during the project and choose the most appropriate one for this technology. The form of incorporation and optimal business model of the upcoming company are still open.

At the moment, we are searching for 1-2 collaborative POC partners from well-established companies, whose business and products can benefit from the versatility, robustness, cost effectiveness and multi-sensing capabilities of KNBNNO.

More about the subject

Published paper “A Single‐Material Multi‐Source Energy Harvester, Multifunctional Sensor, and Integrated Harvester–Sensor System—Demonstration of Concept”.

Last updated: 22.12.2020