Scientists have created a 3D-printed fingertip that uses artificial nerve signals for a sense of touch similar to human skin.
It could revolutionise the fields of soft robotics and prosthetics by mimicking the way nerve endings detect fine details.
Researchers from the University of Bristol say their aim is “to make artificial skin as good – or even better – than real skin”.
Our sense of touch is produced by complex structures inside our skin, according to Professor Nathan Lepora from the University of Bristol’s department of engineering mathematics.
Recreating this involved 3D-printing a mesh of pin-like bumps called papillae that combine soft and hard materials to create similar complicated structures to what is found in biology.
“We found our 3D-printed tactile fingertip can produce artificial nerve signals that look like recordings from real, tactile neurons,” added Prof Lepora, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.
“Human tactile nerves transmit signals from various nerve endings called mechanoreceptors, which can signal the pressure and shape of a contact.”
The professor explained: “In our work, we tested our 3D-printed artificial fingertip as it ‘felt’ those same ridged shapes and discovered a startlingly close match to the neural data.”
The move was “an exciting development in the field of soft robotics”, he added.
“Being able to 3D-print tactile skin could create robots that are more dexterous or significantly improve the performance of prosthetic hands by giving them an in-built sense of touch,” he said.
But while the signals produced by the artificial fingertip and human nerves were a close match, the artificial fingertip was not as sensitive to fine detail.
Professor Lepora suspects this is because the 3D-printed material is thicker than real skin.
His team is now exploring if there might be a way to create 3D-printed structures on the microscopic scale of human skin with the aim of making “artificial skin as good – or even better – than real skin”.
The findings are published in two papers published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.